By Brandon Weaver
When it comes to ranked choice voting (RCV), Maine and Alaska typically hog the limelight. Maine was the first state to use RCV in a presidential election and Alaska recently combined RCV and non-partisan primaries in a ballot measure approved by voters. While Maine and Alaska deserve recognition for these achievements, they are not, you might be surprised to learn, the only states that use RCV in some form. In fact, more than half of the states use it at least at the state or local level for elections.
We want to highlight some of the less-publicized ways RCV is already providing benefits to states that use it.
RCV for Military and Overseas
When I moved to Germany, navigating the voting process took on a new dimension. No longer could I simply walk down to my local high school and get a ballot. Worrying about my ability to perform my civic duty, I began searching for information online. Fortunately, the U.S. supports its citizens voting abroad, and I discovered that I now belonged to a class of voters known as the overseas voter. As far as voting in elections go, this new class I belonged to has a lot in common with another class of voters called, well, the military. Military and overseas voters both frequently mail in their ballots when they are not in their state during elections. Federal and state legislatures do take this into account when writing election laws, and this is when RCV sometimes enters the scene.
Many states have rules that, when a primary candidate does not get at least 50% of the vote in a primary, a primary runoff election is held where the two candidates with the most votes will face each other. Because there is a minimum length of time by which states must provide voters their ballots before an election, there can be huge gaps between an initial and runoff elections if ballots have to be sent out again to overseas voters and provide them with enough time to mail them back in. Some states, such as Alabama, avoid this headache and schedule runoff elections shortly after the first election by allowing military and overseas voters to use a ranked choice ballot.
Alabama sends military and overseas voters a special ballot that “permit the voter to cast a ballot in a federal instant runoff primary election by indicating his or her order of preference for each candidate for each office listed on the ballot.” [code of alabama Section 17-13-8.1]. That “special ballot” is simply a ranked choice ballot! If no primary candidate reaches 50%, Alabama holds a second election (the runoff) a few weeks later where the top two candidates face each other. In-person voters return to the polls and pick one of the candidates as in a conventional election. Military and overseas voters, however, have already made their preference known with their RCV ballot, which is counted by the election officials to determine their runoff vote. Alabama is joined by Mississippi, Louisiana, and others by making it easy for military members and overseas citizens to participate in runoff elections with ranked choice voting.
Using RCV in this way has several benefits. For the voters, the process is greatly streamlined as there is no need to request multiple ballots for a single election when it has runoffs. Issues like filling out the required forms, sending your ballot in time, and hoping your ballot is delivered are stressful enough for a single election (trust me). Doubling that stress with runoff elections is completely avoided, thanks to RCV. For election officials, there is more freedom in scheduling runoffs now that they no longer need to worry about sending out overseas ballots early enough beforehand. The state also saves some money by not having to mail additional ballots—postage isn’t free after all.
The biggest benefit, however, is the amount of increased overall voter participation it enables. Runoffs tend to have less voter turnout the more time there is between the first election and the runoff, including in-person voters. When states are able to schedule runoffs sooner, voters are more likely to show up. For states that don’t take advantage of the benefits that RCV offers, runoffs have to be scheduled much later to allow the necessary time for sending and receiving ballots. An analysis by Fairvote of primary runoffs in Alabama and Texas, a state that does not send RCV ballots to military and overseas voters, showed that the voter decline between the first election and its runoff is much larger in Texas. While this could be because everything is bigger in Texas, the more likely reason is that the time between the first election and the runoff is just too long for voters to stay engaged.
Expanding to General Voters
The use of RCV ballots for military and overseas voters in primary elections is clearly beneficial. Could more benefits be gained from expanding RCV to all voters in primary elections? Scheduling time to wait in line at the local polling place is expected, but to repeat that multiple times for a single election is, as demonstrated by overseas ballots, completely unnecessary. The same process allowed for military and overseas voters can be extended to the general population, providing everyone the same streamlined process RCV enables. States that use RCV for overseas voters already have the process in place, it is simply a matter of scaling it for everyone. For voters concerned about the added complexity of filling out their ballots, states such as Alabama do not require overseas voters to rank more than one candidate if they don’t want to (code of alabama, Sec. 17-13-8.1). This means their RCV ballot, by only ranking their top candidate, is like a conventional ballot.
If RCV overseas ballots eased some headaches in scheduling runoffs, imagine what expanding RCV to all primary voters could do. You would only need to schedule a single election! Not only does this save election officials from unnecessary work, but it also saves taxpayers money. Runoff elections aren’t cheap—in 2014, the Alabama Secretary of State gave a price tag of $3 million for statewide elections regardless of turnout—and RCV ballots would prevent these added costs by removing the need to hold a second election at all. Just like military and overseas voters don’t need to vote a second time to choose a runoff winner (their choice is already baked into their ballot), neither does the rest of the population. Hold a single primary with RCV ballots for everyone and watch how a majority of voters select a candidate without all the added hassle and cost of multiple elections.
Ranked choice voting exists in our election system in different forms because it provides benefits that conventional voting does not. Some states send military and overseas voters a RCV ballot so that they can participate in primary elections that have the potential to result in a runoff. These RCV ballots provide a benefit to the voters that receive them in the form of streamlined voting process that lets them make their preference clear. They also benefit the state election officials by making it easier to schedule runoff elections shortly after the initial election, which in turn maintains a higher level of overall voter participation. With the process of using RCV ballots already in place, why not gain even more benefit for voters, election officials, and taxpayers by expanding RCV for primary elections to all voters?