Robert Gehrke’s election night thoughts: Hillyard loses and other surprises from early returns

Robert Gehrke

Quick thoughts on early returns

Looking at the first round of election returns, here’s the takeaway.

Spencer Cox leads the governor’s race, which isn’t all that surprising. Jon Huntsman is banking on crossover voting from independents and Democrats. We know that as of a few days ago, most of those people hadn’t voted. 

So either they voted late and this will be close or they changed their registration and didn’t end up voting, in which case Cox will hang on. The lead is narrow enough right now we probably won’t know for a while who ends up winning this. The remaining ballots probably favor Huntsman, but the questions now are: By what margin and how many are there? Right now, given the choice, I would much prefer to be in Cox’s position than Huntsman.

Here’s one thing we do know: Greg Hughes and Thomas Wright are done. Hughes is in a 17-point hole and would need to win an overwhelming majority of the ballots left to be counted. That’s not going to happen.

Sean Reyes looks like he’s holding off a charge from David Leavitt in the attorney general’s race.

Burgess Owens is having a somewhat surprisingly easy time dispatching the rest of the field and will square off against U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams in a race that will draw a lot of national attention and money.

Perhaps the surprise of the night is state Sen. Lyle Hillyard, the longest-serving state senator, is getting crushed up in Cache County. Hillyard first came to the Legislature in 1981, served two terms in the state House before moving to the Senate, where he has been since 1985.

His opponent, Chris Wilson, ran on a “change” platform and, no question, Hillyard’s role as the point man on the Legislature’s unpopular and ill-fated tax reform plan was a huge burden.

A handful of other legislative contests are still close enough we’ll need to keep watching — Sen. Lincoln Fillmore and Rich Cunningham; Willie Billings and Rep. Brad Last; Rep. Keven Stratton holding a small lead over Darren Shallenberger; and maybe watch Sen. Wayne Harper who leads Karen Hyatt in Taylorsville.

Utah GOP turnout gets high

Utah Republicans appear headed to setting a new turnout record — with, to quote Ringo Starr, a little help from their friends.

As of Tuesday evening, state elections officials were reporting more than 400,000 Utahns had voted in the primary election. State figures show that, of those ballots already processed, a little more than 90% of them were cast in the Republican primary.

With untold tens of thousands of ballots still being cast on Tuesday, the turnout will shatter the previous record, at least in terms of the raw number of votes.

In 2018, when Mitt Romney squared off against Mike Kennedy in a Senate primary, about 325,000 turned out. In 2016 and 2012, the number was right around 260,000. There wasn’t a statewide primary in 2014. In 2010, it was about 191,000. In 2008, it was about 94,000.

And if the Mailman is the one delivering those votes (literally in the age of vote-by-mail), independents and Democrats who crossed over are the John Stockton, who rack up the assist.

As of Monday, about 61,000 people had registered to join the Republican primary in the past month, 10,000 of them in a two-week span. More than 100,000 had registered since the first of the year and a significant portion of them appear to be independents and Democrats who affiliated with the GOP so they could vote in the primary.

As a percentage, Republican turnout will likely eclipse 60%, which is unheard of in a primary.

So who said the parties can’t work together?

Oklahomans headed toward health care

You probably recall two years ago, when Utahns voted for Proposition 2, making Utah one of 36 states (plus Washington, D.C.) to extend Medicaid coverage for low-income residents. Since then about 56,000 Utahns have enrolled in the program, which has become increasingly vital in the age of COVID. 

Tuesday night, Oklahoma appears headed toward expanding Medicaid. The initiative held a small lead Tuesday night, but a few precincts remained to be counted. The Oklahoman called the race, saying the measure would pass, just before 9:30 p.m.

That would make Oklahoma the fifth Republican state to do so — Maine was the first, followed by Utah, Idaho and Nebraska.

The passage would mean as many as 200,000 low-income Oklahomans could gain coverage under the program. 

Missouri residents will vote on a similar referendum in August. 

And while President Donald Trump continues to push to do away with Obamacare — his administration filed a brief with the Supreme Court last week — it is becoming increasingly clear where the public, both Democrats and Republicans, stand on the issue. 

Doing away with it at this point, when just 13 states have not bought into the program, wouldn’t just be difficult. Without drastically reframing the issue, it would be a political nightmare.

We shoulda used ranked choice

Polls are closed and it’ll be days, maybe weeks, before we know who won the Republican nomination for governor.

But here’s a sure bet: Whoever ends up winning, won’t get a majority of the vote. That may not be a huge problem — a plurality of voters have elected a governor before and we’re still here.

However, think about it this way: A majority of Republicans — probably about 60% of them — will have voted for someone other than the person who will represent the party in November.

There are better ways to run elections. Earlier this year I wrote about ranked choice voting, where voters rank candidates on the ballot from their favorite to their least favorite. In ranked choice, the lowest vote-getter is dropped out of the race and the votes from supporters of that candidate roll over to those voters’ second choices. It continues until there are two remaining candidates and one emerges as the winner.

It’s a little complicated but it makes sense for a few reasons. First, the winner has a majority of the support — or at least not a majority of opposition.

Second, nobody wastes a vote. You could vote for the longest of long-shot and not fear wasting your vote because your vote will still count on the second round. You don’t have to end up voting for a candidate you think has a chance to win instead of the candidate you agree with the most.

It would’ve been a great idea to use in the Democratic presidential primary, with a crowded field. And it would’ve made sense in the Republican primary for the same reason. But while local elections have tested out ranked voting — with rousing success, by the way — we didn’t have time to implement it on a larger scale.

But, proponents of ranked choice voting staged a pilot of sorts today, inviting Republicans to try out ranked choice by voting online in the governor’s race.

Here are their results — which, I have to stress, are not scientific or intended to represent the actual results. They were merely intended to let people try it out.

In their first round, Jon Huntsman and Spencer Cox were whisker-close (36%), followed by Greg Hughes (18%) and Thomas Wright (11%), who was dropped out. Wright’s votes rolled mostly to Hughes, followed by Cox and Huntsman.

But then Hughes was at the bottom (with 22%) and dropped out, leaving Cox and Huntsman in the final round and … drum roll … Huntsman barely edged out Cox, 50.4% to 49.6%.

We’ll have to see if the actual results are close to that (again, it wasn’t intended to be predictive).

But the experiment, which had about 1,900 participants, is useful to show how it could work and hopefully will get wider acceptance going forward.

“Ranked choice voting is better, faster, and cheaper,” said Stan Lockhart, spokesman for Ranked Choice Voting Utah. “It works. Utah voters who have tried ranked choice overwhelmingly prefer it to the old process, and they want it used in future elections.”