Robert Gehrke: Here’s how we could have improved Utah’s Super Tuesday experience

Robert Gehrke

I’ve noticed that my friends and neighbors kind of fall into two groups when I ask who they’re voting for in Tuesday’s presidential primary: One consists of those people who would — as Pete Rose once said — “walk through hell in a gasoline suit” for Bernie Sanders.

And then there are people, at least anecdotally a majority, who like a candidate, maybe a few candidates, but feel like they need to be strategic in how they vote. They want to pick a winner or at least feel like their vote matters.

It shouldn’t have to be that way and it doesn’t have to be that way.

For the past several years, Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, has been pushing the state to adopt ranked-choice voting, sometimes called instant-runoff voting.

It’s a little complicated, which is maybe why it hasn’t caught on more broadly, but essentially voters rank the candidates from their favorite to their least favorite.

So, say a candidate gets 20 votes and finishes last in the pack. Those 20 ballots are reallocated based on voters’ second choices. The last place candidate is then dropped, ballots reapportioned and so on until one of the candidates gets a majority.

Like I said, it’s a little complicated, but here’s what you need to know: No matter what, you can vote for the candidate you like the most, not worry about it helping the candidate you like the least and know your vote isn’t wasted.

[Read more: Did you vote early for a candidate who dropped out? Sorry, no do-overs]

Here’s another huge benefit that we saw in real time over the weekend: With early voting common across the country, what happens when a candidate — Mayor Pete or Tom Steyer — drops out after thousands have voted? Now those votes are wasted. With ranked choice, they could roll up to second or third picks and still matter.

Here’s another one. With ranked-choice voting, you don’t even need primaries. One candidate can emerge without winnowing the field to just two. And it could change the tone of campaigns. Since candidates are jockeying to be a second or third choice, it’s less likely they’ll run a scorched-earth attack campaign.

Think back to last year’s Salt Lake City mayoral primary, where among a crowded field of contenders there were really three or four candidates with a shot to advance to the general election, so some voters abandoned their first choice, say, Stan Penfold or David Garbett for someone they thought could win, say Erin Mendenhall and Luz Escamilla.

We missed a golden opportunity to try out ranked choice in that mayoral primary. We’re missing another chance to test it at the statewide level in this Tuesday’s Democratic presidential primary.

But the place ranked-choice voting really could have made the most profound difference is in the upcoming Republican gubernatorial primary.

Right now there are seven GOP candidates meaning if they all manage to get on the primary ballot — either through signatures or the convention — you could have a winner declared with as little as 15% of the vote.

That’s unlikely, but somewhere around 25% is certainly possible. Let’s assume the turnout is on par with 2016, when fewer than 250,000 Republicans voted in the primary. You could end up with 62,000 voters choosing the Republican nominee — and let’s face it, the next governor — for a state of more than 3 million people.

That will undoubtedly lead to mind-boggling electoral calculus with voters hedging and voting for a candidate they find least objectionable with the best chance of winning instead of doing what voters should be able to do: Vote for the candidate they think would do the best job.

In 2018, the Utah Legislature gave cities the option of testing out ranked-choice voting. Only two, Payson and Vineyard, went that route in their municipal elections last year.

A poll of residents in those two cities found 86% thought ranked-choice voting was easy to use and 82.5% said they should continue to use it. On Friday, a Senate committee endorsed a resolution praising the cities for experimenting with ranked-choice voting.

Taking the experiment statewide is a whole different ball game than running it in two small towns. And of course it’s too late to change the rules in a campaign that’s already underway. But there is little downside to continuing down the path toward ranked-choice voting and the very real possibility that changing the way we vote could change our politics.