Two Utah lawmakers seek switch to ‘ranked-choice voting'

Burgess Owens won Utah’s 4th Congressional District GOP primary with just 44% of the vote. Spencer Cox won with an even lower percentage in the GOP governor’s primary — 36%. And Blake Moore won with just 31% in the 1st Congressional District.

Of course, that means a majority of Republicans participating in the June 30 primary voted for someone else in each of those four-candidate contests. In Moore’s case, 69% of voting Republicans favored a losing candidate.

State Rep. Mike Winder and Sen. Curt Bramble, both Republicans, are about to push legislation that they figure will ensure that a candidate with the broadest party support actually wins — and does so with a majority in the final count.

It’s called ranked-choice voting. In current versions, voters mark 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.

“As people look at the plurality winners in this year’s election, it gives some pause,” Winder said. “Those who have used ranked-choice voting have realized, wow, this is a great way to go and a better way to express my preference.”

(Photo courtesy of Mike Winder) Rep. MIke Winder, R-West Valley City.

Winder used ranked-choice voting as a delegate this year at the Utah Republican Convention. He noted the governor’s race then had eight candidates, and the system allowed him to rank in order his favorites “where I had a lot of friends running and a sister, too” — Aimee Winder Newton. “It was very easy and intuitive.”

Also, he said that system seemed to make races more civil because all the candidates sought to at least be voters’ second choice, so they didn’t risk attacking a rival who might be some voters’ top choice. “After the convention, those races seemed much less civil,” Winder said.

A poll of delegates by the party found that 72% of respondents preferred using ranked-choice voting in the future.

Vineyard and Payson also used it in municipal primaries last year in an experiment allowed by the Legislature. A survey by Utah County found that 83% percent of voters there liked the system and want to use it again.

Winder, R-West Valley City, said he began discussing a ranked-choice voting bill with Bramble, R-Provo — who will be its Senate sponsor — and others during this year’s legislative session. He opened a bill file in May and made it public after the primary so “we can have a robust discussion about it as we head into the next session” in January.

(Maine Office of Secretary of State via AP)This shows a sample ballot created in Main to show how ranked-choice voting would work there.

Winder said the bill would require ranked-choice voting in all primaries beginning next year. “The time has come. The technology is now there. People are comfortable with it.”

Bramble adds that they are trying to come up with a possible new style of ranked-choice voting to overcome a shortfall where it is possible for someone to get few first-round votes — and thus be eliminated — but be the overwhelming second-choice of voters. The new style would determine a winner based on the combined value of votes cast for all rounds.

Bramble said no one else uses that, and several people have told him it’s not possible. “But we’re early in this discussion,” and he wants to see what might be created.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, in the Senate Chamber on Feb. 20, 2020.

Before 2014, Utah’s 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.

Bramble — who wrote that law as a compromise to preserve conventions as a voter initiative threatened to erase them — said ranked-choice voting is one of few ways to overcome “the plurality problem” that may gain enough support to pass.

But that may be an uphill climb. A Salt Lake Tribune/Suffolk University poll conducted last month showed that only 26.4% of likely primary voters then favored ranked-choice voting while 64% preferred the current system and about 9% were unsure. Winder said seeing the recent plurality wins may help change minds.

Still, Davis County Commissioner Bob Stevenson — who just finished second in the close 1st Congressional District GOP primary — says while he believes the party needs to prevent plurality winners, he is one who says it should turn to runoff elections and not ranked-choice voting.

He says ranked-choice voting “will totally confuse the electorate’s mind. They won’t understand it. … There’s no way my 93-year-old mother will use ranked-choice voting. She won’t understand it.”

He adds, “I think they would be much wiser to do runoffs. I believe the electorate understands it.”