Lawmakers considering spending $500K to educate Utah voters about ranked choice voting

Alternative voting method is aimed at assuring a majority-vote winner in primary elections.

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) Ballots are shown in the elections management center at Salt Lake County Government Center, in this Nov. 3, 2020, file photo. Utah lawmakers are considering spending $500,000 on a public service campaign to educate voters about ranked-choice voting.

If lawmakers decide to expand the use of ranked-choice voting in future Utah elections, it could carry a $500,000 price tag to educate voters on how to cast a ballot under the alternative system.

There are several bills winding their way through the 2021 Utah Legislature seeking to expand the voting method which allows voters to rank candidates from first to last place. If no one receives a majority of the first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. The process continues until a candidate gets a majority.

Two Utah County cities used ranked-choice voting in their municipal elections in 2019, and the Utah Republican and Democratic state conventions last year chose primary election candidates in several races that way.

Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, is sponsoring HB127, which aims to use ranked-choice voting in partisan primary elections with three or more candidates.

“Ranked-choice voting is popular on both sides of the aisle,” said Winder. “Both the Republican and Democratic conventions used it last year with a 90% approval rating. They loved it.”

Proponents of the system point to three high-profile 2020 primary elections in Utah where the eventual nominee failed to secure a majority of support from voters. Gov. Spencer Cox won the GOP nomination for governor with just over 36% of the primary vote. Reps. Blake Moore and Burgess Owens also prevailed in their multiple-candidate primary elections with less than a majority.

Winder pitched the expenditure to a budget subcommittee Friday morning. He says the Utah elections office feels a public service campaign would be of benefit to voters.

“Municipalities are excited about this and are already using it. But, it’s important to have an education campaign,” he said.

While Winder’s request did not encounter much opposition from the committee, it’s not all smooth sailing for ranked-choice voting. County clerks across Utah will be responsible for implementing the changes if approved by the Legislature. The Clerk/Auditor Association of Utah is wary of making another change to Utah’s elections on the heels of moving to an all vote-by-mail system in recent years.

“The greatest lesson that was learned was the importance in consistency in voting methods,” the group said in a public statement.

“The considerations currently being discussed provide for only occasional, or conditional implementation of an alternative voting method. This approach is problematic as it creates different rules for different elections, and changes voters’ expectations from election to election.”

Winder said, regardless of whether his or the other bills dealing with alternative voting methods pass this year, the spending is a civic necessity.

“We still have a ranked-choice voting pilot program out there, and the lieutenant governor’s office would love to have some additional resources to educate people about it. If any of these bills were to pass, then all the more reason why this is important,” he said.

Lawmakers anticipate having more than $1 billion in one-time money to appropriate before the end of the 2021 session in March.