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Ranked Choice Voting Works for the Overseas Military. Why Not for Everybody?

Some states that allow service members to use the voting system are moving to ban it for everybody else. It doesn’t make sense.

Military member with "I Voted" pin
When you’re serving your country overseas, remaining focused on the mission can be a matter of life and death. There’s little time for anything else, including exercising your right to vote. As a Marine combat veteran who served in Iraq, I know how hard it can be to vote while deployed: We must apply for a ballot, receive it in a foreign land, send it back and cross our fingers that it arrives on time. In my experience, many service members are unable to complete this process successfully and have their voices heard.

Now, imagine going through this series of deadlines a second time to vote in a runoff election.

Fortunately, six Southern states adopted an elegant solution that allows service members and their families living overseas to vote on Election Day and in runoffs using just one mailing: ranked choice voting. This simple tool has protected tens of thousands of military voters for years — in some of these states for decades.

RCV works. It’s simple and effective, and military members count on it. But now politicians in at least five of those Southern states — Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina — are working to ban RCV, decrying it as some sort of attempt to rob constituents of their voting rights. Here’s the strange part: In all five of these states, overseas service members are the only voters currently using RCV, and all of the prohibition bills contain explicit carve-outs allowing overseas military voters to continue doing so.

It’s difficult to understand. RCV is such an effective tool that military voters can continue using it as they have for years. So why this panicked rush to ban it for others? It doesn’t make sense.

Here’s why RCV helps, especially in races with more than two candidates that might be forced into a runoff. In an RCV election, voters can rank the candidates in order of preference — first choice, second choice and so on. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the race goes to an “instant runoff.” The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Voters who ranked that candidate as their first choice have their vote count for their second choice. This process repeats until a candidate wins with a majority of the vote.

In this way, RCV ensures military and other overseas voters can make their voices heard in states that require runoffs if no candidate wins a majority on Election Day. All a service member is doing is indicating which candidate their vote should go to if their first choice doesn’t make it to a runoff. There’s no need to spend weeks waiting for a second ballot to arrive overseas, and no fear that that ballot might not make it back home in time to count.

But RCV has benefits for more than just military voters. I saw this firsthand as the Republican elected county clerk in Utah County, Utah. Home to Brigham Young University, the county is just about as ruby-red a place as you can find, and it was also the first county in the state to use RCV. I administered those elections across several cities in both 2019 and 2021.

These cities had replaced their two-round elections with a single RCV election. It was less expensive and more efficient, while still ensuring that candidates needed a majority to win. Six cities in Utah County saved $140,000 by using RCV in 2021; the collective savings of all Utah cities using RCV since 2019 is likely over $1 million. At the same time, 81 percent of Utah voters said they found RCV easy to use, and 86 percent were satisfied with it.

What we saw in Utah County was that voters understood and appreciated the fact that RCV gives them greater choice and voice. And for all the warnings about RCV and election administration, our RCV elections went as smoothly as any other.

I understand that when it comes to any kind of electoral reform we must be careful to “first do no harm.” But when politicians in these five states claim RCV is so dangerous that no voter should be allowed to use it — except for the tens of thousands of military voters who have used it without incident for years — they’re admitting the truth: Ranked choice voting works.

Josh Daniels, the CEO of the software company InnoGov, served as the elected county clerk and auditor for Utah County, Utah, from 2021 to 2023. He was chief deputy clerk and auditor from 2019 to 2021.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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