When the Georgia General Assembly passed Senate Bill 202 in the 2021 session, an obscure provision of the bill authorized the Secretary of State to implement a form of Ranked Choice Voting for US military and civilian citizens living outside the United States. The purpose of this change was to effectively shorten Georgia’s runoff election cycles when a federal office was involved from nine weeks to four weeks.

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) was enacted by Congress in 1986. UOCAVA requires that the states and territories allow certain groups of citizens to register and vote absentee in elections for Federal offices. In 2009, legislation known as the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act ("MOVE Act") amended UOCAVA to establish new voter registration and absentee ballot procedures which the states must follow in all federal elections. Georgia’s compliance with the provisions of MOVE dictated that runoff cycles for any election in which a federal office (US Congress or US Senate) was on the ballot must be nine weeks, which was intended to give enough time for the counties to create runoff ballots, send them overseas, and have the voters return them by mail in time to be counted. By eliminating this cycle for overseas voters, Georgia can forego the nine-week turnaround cycle and schedule all election runoffs to be four weeks after the first round election, no matter which offices are on the runoff ballot.

The language in SB 202 provides no specifics on how the RCV process for overseas voters will be accomplished. Thus far, the Georgia Secretary of State’s office has not provided us with any information on how they intend to implement the requirements of the new law. Several other states had earlier enacted RCV/IRV for overseas voters. As a preview on how Georgia might choose to structure its process, we reached out to our neighbors to the east to ask how they have been implementing RCV/IRV for their overseas voters. The following is a summary of information gathered from the office of the South Carolina State Election Commission.

-- Registered voters in South Carolina who are residing outside the US receive absentee ballots just as a SC resident who could not vote in person would.

-- The non-US resident voter would (if needed) be provided with a second IRV ballot in their "package." The IRV ballot would list all races that had more than two candidates running. The IRV ballot would be designed to allow the voter to rank their choices in any race on the ballot with three or more choices – first choice, second choice etc.

-- Each county would be responsible for creating the IRV ballot if one were needed. They get assistance from the State Election Commission, in the form of an MS Word document that serves as a template for creating the IRV ballot. The state includes in its template sample designs for the 3+ candidate races that are at the state or federal level. If a particular local race has 3+ candidates, the County would be responsible for adding those races to the IRV ballot.

-- The county election commission is responsible for the design of the IRV ballot that would accompany the round one ballot provided to the overseas voter. No attempt is made to make the IRV ballot machine-readable like the traditional absentee ballots with bubble choices.

-- When the overseas absentee ballots are received by the county prior to the round one election day, the IRV ballots in those packages are set aside and kept to be dealt with if needed.

-- If there are no races requiring a runoff in a particular jurisdiction, the IRV ballots received from overseas residents registered in those jurisdictions will not be further needed.

-- In jurisdictions where no candidate has received a majority in one or more races, a runoff is scheduled two weeks later. On the night of the runoff, the county election officials have the task of investigating each IRV ballot, and determining which of the two candidates in the runoff(s) the overseas voter has allocated their choice to. Because the IRV ballot is not machine-readable, the county officials would follow the same protocol used when a normal absentee paper ballot is unreadable, and create a new machine-readable ballot that reflects the voters intended choice, following the standard protocol for those situations.

It should be noted that South Carolina only uses the IRV ballot in primary elections. Their general and special elections do not require 50% plus one to win. Georgia, of course, is a runoff state in almost all races. It is not clear at this time if Georgia would require an IRV ballot to overseas voters for every race with 3 + candidates or only races for Federal office.

In any event, it seems likely that the South Carolina process provides a preview of what Georgia will do when we begin our implementation.

Robert Prather


Ranked-choice voting advocate (proportional representation, too).