Utah legislative committee votes to drop the issue of plurality elections — for now

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) People cast their votes in the early hours shortly after the polls opened for the midterm elections on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 at First Congregational Church in Salt Lake City.

After months of study and years of handwringing, a panel of Utah lawmakers recommended Wednesday that Utah maintain its status quo regarding election candidates who win a party nomination with less than a majority of votes.

Members of the Government Operations Interim Committee had been asked by legislative leaders to issue guidance on the question of plurality, a situation where no candidate in a race exceeds 50% support.

But after a presentation on the frequency of plurality victories, and the costs and administrative burden of various solutions, the committee voted unanimously to recommend that no changes be made in the short term to the state’s election laws.

“At this point I’m waiting for someone to convince me that there’s a better option on the table than ‘do nothing’,” said Sen. Dan Thatcher, R-West Valley City.

Plurality has become a perennial topic of discussion at the Legislature since the passage of SB54 in 2014, which allows candidates for partisan office to qualify for the primary by gathering signatures in addition to — or instead of — earning the support of party delegates.

The controversial law has prompted repeated — but so far unsuccessful — attempts at repeal and amendment, particularly among supporters of the traditional caucus and convention system.

Brian Bean, a policy analyst with the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, told committee members Wednesday that of the state’s 305 partisan elections during the 2016 and 2018 cycles, 84 were preceded by a primary.

And of those 84 primaries, Bean said, 19 included more than two candidates in a single race and 16 resulted in plurality winners.

Bean told the committee there are effectively five options for addressing plurality.

The state can do nothing, he said, or it can change the statute to include runoff elections, ranked-choice voting (sometimes referred to as instant runoff voting), a top-two primary that includes all candidates from all parties (sometimes referred to as a “jungle” primary), or a system where party organizations are allowed to determine the nominee if no candidate secures a majority.

Thatcher said a top-two primary is “intriguing but probably politically difficult," while the remaining options involve costs, administrative hurdles and disruptions that outweigh the negatives of plurality.

“We would essentially be making a more difficult process to address something that happens, on average, four times a year,” Thatcher said.

Two Utah cities are experimenting with ranked-choice voting this year, as part of a pilot program authorized by the Legislature. That voting method automatically allocates the votes of an unsuccessful candidate to voters’ next-preferred option, repeating the process until a winner secures more than 50%.

Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Salem, sponsored that pilot and is a vocal proponent of ranked-choice voting. He told his committee colleagues on Wednesday that he views plurality as a problem that warrants a legislative solution.

“I think we ought to try to get as close to 50% or above as possible,” Roberts said. “That’s the whole basis and foundation of our government as a representative form of government.”

Roberts ultimately joined the other committee members in their recommendation, but he added that this year’s ranked-choice experiments could yield information on whether, and how, the model could be expanded statewide.

“Let’s see how the pilot project works,” he said. “That’s why we did it.”

And Rep. John Knotwell, R-Herriman, expressed his concern that while plurality has not yet caused serious problems in the state, the potential is there. He gave the example of the state’s next gubernatorial contest in 2020, which is expected to see a number of high-profile candidates competing for an open, statewide seat.

“We need to keep our eyes open on this issue as we approach the next [election] cycle,” Knotwell said.

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