Gehrke: Would ranking candidates work better than head-to-head elections? Let’s give it a shot and see.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune The Salt Lake Tribune staff portraits. Robert Gehrke.

There’s a chance that the Salt Lake City mayor’s race next year won’t be a head-to-head matchup between two candidates. Instead there could be five, six, or who-knows-how-many names on the ballot.

That’s because last session, Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, one of the most conservative legislators, teamed up with one of the most liberal, Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, to pass legislation that would let cities test out of new kind of voting — ranked choice.

It’s a method that is already used in a handful of cities — Minneapolis, San Francisco, Oakland, and Santa Fe, N.M., among them — where instead of voters picking from the survivors of partisan primary contests, they are given a full slate of candidates in the general election and rank their favorites.

In a crowded field, the candidate with the least first-place votes gets dropped out, then those voters' second pick gets their votes. The candidate with the fewest votes is again dropped and those votes allocated to the remaining candidates and on and on until there’s one candidate with a majority of the votes.

OK. It’s a little more complicated than a head-to-head election. But proponents say it has its advantages.

It’s cheaper, for one. Because you can have any number of candidates on the final ballot, you don’t have to run a primary election and then a general.

Voter turnout in cities that have used ranked choice has been higher than those that don’t, Chavez-Houck says.

It also changes the dynamics of the election. Now candidates are vying to beat an opponent. But under this system, they would have to fight to not just be a voter’s first choice, but contend to be a voter’s second choice, or third, so they wouldn’t be as likely to go negative and they would have to campaign to a broader pool of voters, not just their base.

There is research that shows that ranked voting makes it more likely that women and individuals from marginalized communities can get elected.

And there’s not the “wasted vote” phenomenon. You can vote Gehrke — or whomever — and not have to worry that, just because your favorite candidate won’t win, your vote would be meaningless. Your second pick would still count in the later tallies.

Chavez-Houck said she started thinking about ranked choice voting as an alternative after the 2016 presidential election, when she constantly heard people say they were voting for the “lesser of two evils” or simply stayed home because they didn’t like the two viable candidates.

Chavez-Houck sponsored ranked choice voting in 2017, but it wasn’t until earlier this year, when Roberts proposed giving cities the option of trying it out in the 2019 municipal elections, that it took hold.

Because municipal elections are non-partisan, parties don’t feel slighted by getting rid of the primaries.

Meantime, a national group, FairVote.org, has hired two Utah lobbyists, Stan Lockhart and former state Rep. Kory Holdaway, to get the idea in front of as many cities as they can. Last week, they held a workshop for officials at the annual Utah League of Cities and Towns conference.

The league’s executive director Cameron Diehl said the reactions were mixed.

“I heard from a few cities that were very interested. I heard from a few that weren’t really interested,” he says. “It’s still too soon to tell if anyone is going to pick it up.”

Holdaway says that cities that want to try it would have to buy new software for their voting machines — 21 of Utah’s 29 counties have voting machines that are compatible with the software. But the cost of the software is more than offset by getting rid of the primary elections.

If they are interested, they need to decide soon. The county clerks, who conduct local elections, have until Jan. 1, 2019, to notify the lieutenant governor’s elections office if they want to try ranked choice. And under Roberts’ bill, the option is only available for a 2019 test run.

“It’s really now or never if a city wants to give it a shot,” Diehl said.

So far, Holdaway said, the Utah County clerk has been the most receptive, although it’s still up to the city councils to take the plunge.

Chavez-Houck said she has pitched Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski on the idea. The mayor was traveling Friday and couldn’t be reached for comment.

I’m not totally convinced that ranked choice voting is the answer to Utah’s low voter participation and general electoral malaise. But I’m not sure it could hurt. And the best way to find out is for some city to step up and give it a shot.

Who knows. Maybe I’ll finally win an election.