‘We are not fully prepared and fully in’: Utah cities move forward with a new voting method, but they could still back out

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County elections officials tabulate votes from ballots, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, at the Salt Lake County building.

At least three Utah cities are cautiously moving forward with a new voting method for the 2019 municipal elections that they hope will boost turnout and save money.

Any municipality in the state can take part in the pilot project for “ranked-choice voting" that was approved by the Legislature earlier this year — but it hasn’t been easy to recruit cities to take the leap.

“The biggest challenge that we’re running into is that most of the cities contract with their respective county clerk to implement their elections, and the clerk also has some apprehension of what that looks like in terms of how their equipment is,” said outgoing Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City. She co-sponsored the legislation creating the project with Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin.

So far, West Jordan, Lehi and Salem are expected to notify the Lieutenant Governor’s Office of their intent to participate in the project. But since they can withdraw any time until May 2019, it’s possible that none will follow through.

“If they get down the road and find some speed bumps, they can opt out,” said Justin Lee, the director of elections in the Lieutenant Governor’s Office.

Under the ranked-choice voting system, voters see a full slate of candidates in the general election and rank their favorites, rather than choosing from the survivors of a primary contest.

In a crowded field, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated and those voters’ second pick gets his or her votes. The person with the fewest votes is then dropped again and those votes allocated to the remaining candidates. That process repeats until there’s a candidate with a majority of the votes.

Advocates of the system say it could increase voter turnout and decrease voter apathy because people may feel their vote matters more. And because the system would eliminate a primary, it could also save money and change the dynamics of the election.

“One of the things that has been noted in the communities that have utilized ranked-choice voting is that the candidates focus on issues,” Chavez-Houck said. “Because what you’re trying to do is not seem necessarily hostile to other candidates because their hope is that if a voter doesn’t rank them first, maybe they’ll rank them second or third. And so what you find is candidates are trying to appeal to a broader constituency instead of just to their base.”

The process comes with challenges, though, including implementation and voter education.

All the cities in Salt Lake County, for example, contract with the county to run their elections ― and its voting machines don’t accommodate ranked-choice voting, according to County Clerk Sherrie Swensen. That means that if those cities wanted to try the new system, they would need to either contract with an outside entity or run their own elections with their own equipment.

The machines in 21 of Utah’s 29 counties could implement ranked choice voting with software upgrades.

West Jordan City Clerk Melanie Briggs said she would “love to be the first” to try the ranked-choice voting system, noting that the city was a leader in implementing by-mail voting when that was relatively new. But she said there are still a lot of unknowns, so the city wants to keep its options open.

“We are not fully prepared and fully in,” she said. “The reason why the City Council adopted the resolution [to move forward with ranked-choice voting] was because of our deadline to the lieutenant governor. So now that they’ve adopted that, we have the option. But we need to spend the next few months researching and looking into the process.”

Though some Salt Lake City residents have called on the council to move forward with the new voting method, it’s unlikely it could pass a resolution before the state’s Jan. 1 deadline. The council’s last meeting of the year is Tuesday.

Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall said lobbyists for the ranked-voting effort approached the council over the summer but that there wasn’t enough interest among members to consider the proposal in a work session. That doesn’t mean, though, that the council won’t consider it in the future, she said.

Turner Bitton, who lives on the city’s west side, wanted the city to implement the voting method before its 2019 mayoral election, which is shaping up to be a crowded one. Former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold, Latino businessman David Ibarra and outgoing state Sen. Jim Dabakis have all signaled their intent to run in the race against Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who will seek a second term.

“Looking at the mayoral election, we have one of our city’s favorite people, Jim Dabakis, running, who has huge name recognition,” said Bitton, the former executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “And then there’s other candidates that might not have that level of name recognition but that still share the same values, maybe share the same policy positions. And in a lot of ways I think [ranked-choice voting] flattens the competition of the race, if you will.”

As the decision deadline approaches, Chavez-Houck said she’s committed to continue working with committed cities to ensure they have the support they need to move forward successfully. And she hopes other cities will “jump on the bandwagon” in future elections.

“I know it’s a bold step for the cities that have decided to move forward with notifying the lieutenant governor," she said, “and so I just want to make sure that we emphasize they should be commended for their leadership in seeking citizen engagement and that they’re responding to the Legislature’s commitment to work toward improvement in election systems.”