Poll: Utah GOP primary voters are wary of ‘ranked-choice voting’

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Utah voters cast ballots at the University of Utah's Marriott Library in Salt Lake City on March 3, 2020.

Four candidates each are vying in the June 30 GOP primary races for Utah governor and the 1st and 4th congressional districts. So, victors easily might win with less than a majority of votes, possibly 40% to 30% or less.

That would mean the majority of voters had cast ballots for losing candidates, which may make it difficult for the winner to claim strong support.

A way around that is called ranked-choice voting. In it, voters list their first, second, third, etc., choices. The candidate with the fewest votes in each round of counting is eliminated and his or her votes are redistributed according to voter choice until someone wins a majority.

Republicans used it in their state convention this year, and the Utah County cities of Vineyard and Payson tried it in municipal elections last year.

A new poll, however, shows that by a wide margin, likely voters in the upcoming Utah GOP primary are wary of switching to such a system.

Only 26.4% favor ranked choice voting while 64% prefer the current system and about 9% don’t know, according to a poll for The Salt Lake Tribune by Suffolk University.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

“I am a little surprised and wonder if it’s a lack of understanding and information on how it really works,” said Vineyard City Recorder Pamela Spencer. When Vineyard used it for last November’s City Council election, “We didn’t have any problems. People understood it. We had maybe two phone calls about it.”

It also cut her city’s election budget in half by eliminating a primary.

Stan Lockhart, a former Utah Republican Party chairman who is a director of Utah Ranked Choice Voting, a group that promotes the system, said a poll by Utah County of voters in Vineyard and Payson found that 83% liked the system last year and want to use it again.

“Once you use it, that’s when you begin to like it,” Lockhart said. “Until then, there’s this general idea that ‘If I don’t know what it is, what I do know is better than what I don’t know.’”

(Maine Office of Secretary of State | AP file photo) This image from the Maine Office of Secretary of State shows a sample ballot using ranked choice voting.

Derek Brown, the current Utah Republican Party chairman, said he saw the same thing as his party used ranked-choice voting at its state convention this year out of necessity.

He explained that some races were especially crowded, such as the 1st Congressional District with 12 candidates. So, using the traditional method of holding additional rounds of voting after eliminating candidates one by one could have taken a week or more with the convention held online because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“Many of the people who were concerned beforehand [about ranked-choice voting] have changed their mind,” Brown said. A poll of state delegates found that 72% of respondents preferred using ranked-choice voting in the future, 21% favored using multiple rounds of regular voting and 6% had no preference.

“It saves a lot of time,” Brown said.

Among those wary of a switch to the new method is 4th Congressional District candidate Kim Coleman — who finished first in every round of convention voting going from 43% in the first round to nearly 55% after round six.

“Ranked-choice voting is not my favorite. Every time a candidate is eliminated, the landscape changes,” she said. “It’s better for voters to have a chance to choose based on the new landscape. A runoff would be a better way to go when there are a lot of candidates in the field.”

Before 2014, party conventions narrowed the field for primary elections to no more than two candidates — and actually chose a final nominee if someone won more than 60% of the vote. But a law called SB54 now allows candidates who gather enough signatures also to qualify for the primary, sometimes creating large fields and the possibility of winners by plurality.

“The biggest problem we have under our current system with SB54 is a plurality possibility,” Brown said.

Lockhart added that if pluralities are small enough, say in the 30% range, “You start wondering if the winner has the support of their party.”

So Brown said ranked-choice voting is “helpful for whoever is the eventual nominee because it gives them the ability to have a majority. It gives them a mandate they otherwise wouldn’t have with a plurality.”

Spencer, the city recorder, added, “I personally like it because I know that the candidate that’s elected is winning by an actual majority vote rather than somebody getting elected at 30% and you’ve got 70% of people who didn’t want that candidate.”

Brown said another benefit he saw is that the system seemed to lead to more civility as candidates sought to be at least the second choice of voters — something difficult to accomplish if they attacked a voter’s first choice.

“It was much more civil in the convention," he said. “And it’s interesting now [in the primary] without ranked-choice voting, there’s a lot more animosity.”

Lockhart said the system also avoids “vote splitting,” in which two candidates with similar views split the votes of like-minded supporters and allow someone with much different stands to win.

Ranked-choice voting “prevents that," he said. “It allows for voters to more fully express their will. And it allows the winner to have the broadest and deepest support.”

Lockhart also said the system tends to lead to more informed voters as they closely look at the views of all candidates while figuring out how to rank them.

He said it prevents wasting a vote when a candidate drops out of a race late, by moving to a second or third choice instead. Wasting votes happened in Utah’s Democratic presidential primary this year when some candidates dropped out of the race after many voters already had sent in their by-mail ballots.

While the state Legislature passed a law to allow cities to experiment with the system, only Vineyard and Payson tried it last year as many county clerks — who actually administer most city elections — opposed the switch or said they could not handle it. Lockhart said his group is trying to persuade more cities to try it next year.

The new Tribune/Suffolk University poll interviewed 500 people who said they plan to vote in the upcoming GOP primary. It has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points, and was conducted June 4-7.