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Ranked choice voting explained: Here’s how it would shake up Utah elections

Ranked choice voting would allow Utah voters to rank candidates by preference instead of using a ‘winner-takes-all’ electoral system.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) This Oct. 20, 2020, file photo shows people filling out their ballots on the first day of the state’s in-person early voting at the Salt Lake County Government Center. Utah lawmakers are considering two bills promoting ranked choice voting, which would allow voters to rank candidates by preference instead of only picking one candidate for a position.

Before the legislative session began, there was a lot of talk about Utah’s possible shift to an alternative kind of election that uses ranked choice voting. With time running out before the March 5 adjournment of the Legislature, a full-scale transformation appears unlikely, but a measure that could move more local elections in that direction still has a shot.

So, what is it and why are some arguing for its widespread adoption?

How it works.

Ranked choice voting is an electoral system that allows voters to rank candidates by preference instead of only picking one candidate for a position. Voters submit ballots ranking their first and second choice and, if there are more candidates, third, fourth, and so on down the line.

All first choices are counted and if one candidate has a majority then they win, just like any other election.

If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, then the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated from the running. Voters who picked that sidelined candidate as No. 1 will have their votes count for their second choice.

A new tally is then conducted to determine whether any candidate has won a majority of the adjusted votes.

This process continues, with the lowest vote-getter being scratched from the list each time until one candidate earns a majority and is declared the winner. Ranked choice voting only requires a single round of voting: one ballot with multiple choices per voter.

Where it’s used

Ranked choice voting is having a “viral” moment, according to Ashley Houghton, director of communications at FairVote, a nonpartisan nonprofit devoted to election reform. This method of election has expanded from 14 cities in 2010 to 22 today, plus adoption by two states, Maine and Alaska.

“Not a single city or state has repealed it in the last decade. Responses from voters and candidates alike have been overwhelmingly positive,” Houghton said.

“I think the most positive example of Utah using ranked choice voting was in the Republican convention last year,” Houghton continued. “Delegates were overwhelmingly pleased with the changes.” When Utah delegates were asked to rate their overall experience with this year’s convention, 90% of respondents reported feeling “satisfied” or “very satisfied.”

Two Utah cities already adopted ranked choice voting for city council races: Payson and Vineyard.

Pamela Spencer, Vineyard city recorder, said her city’s 2019 election “ran well” and that ranked choice voting is a “fair way to run the election.”

“In December of 2020, our City Council voted to have me run the election by ranked choice in the 2021 election cycle,” Spencer said.

In 2019, Payson elected three city council members using ranked choice voting. “Feedback following the election was positive from candidates, staff and residents,” Kim Holindrake, Payson city recorder, said.

HB127, sponsored by Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, would require ranked choice voting to be used in primary elections for state or county office when there are more than two candidates in a race. It is designed to ensure that the winner has support from a majority of participating voters.

But HB127 is stuck in the House Rules Committee and has been since the beginning of the legislative session, so it appears unlikely to go anywhere this year.

Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper, has passed the House and has a shot at making it through the Senate. HB75 would make changes to a previously established pilot program to broaden the opportunities for cities to try ranked choice voting in their local elections.

“There are cities and municipalities who want to do ranked choice voting this year for their city elections, but the county clerks are not willing to conduct a ranked choice voting election for them,” Stenquist said.

If a municipality wanted to use ranked choice voting, HB75 would prevent the county clerk from refusing to conduct the election that way and that has spurred most clerks to oppose the bill.

“While 28 of Utah’s 29 county clerks don’t think ranked choice voting is good for voters, we understand that many lawmakers want to address the issue of plurality,” Ricky Hatch, Weber County clerk/auditor, said.

Pros and Cons

Most elections use a winner-take-all, or plurality approach. In most parts of the United States, voters select a single candidate for each position on their ballot and the candidate with the most votes wins, even if most voters supported other candidates.

That happened in last year’s Utah Republican primary election for governor, where Spencer Cox won the nomination with just 36.1% of the vote. That means 63.8% voted for one of the other candidates.

But, according to Hatch, ranked choice voting alters the outcome of elections in only 3% of races. “Analysis of ranked choice voting elections in Minneapolis, San Francisco and Maine show that the first round winner is also the eventual winner in 97% of races,” Hatch said.

An advantage of ranked choice voting would be providing more choices, allowing more than two candidates to compete without fear of splitting the vote among like-minded competitors.

“Sometimes voters feel pressured to vote for the lesser of two evils. Ranked choice voting allows people to vote for their favorite candidate, not just against the candidates they dislike,” Houghton said.

With ranked choice voting, there may be more positive campaigns and less negative advertising. According to Holindrake, ranked choice voting “created a positive election” in Payson.

“Candidates were very cordial, engaged with all voters to earn a voter’s choice and ran clean campaigns using the mindset of being a second or third choice if they weren’t a voter’s first choice,” Holindrake said. Candidates would be encouraged to reach out to as many voters as possible, including those supporting their opponents.

“Candidates will want to vie for the second spot, which means they’re disincentivized to sling mud and try to prevent supporters of other candidates from showing up on election day. They could build a winning coalition with like-minded candidates to earn voters’ second and third choices,” Houghton said.

In Payson’s previous municipal election in 2015, turnout was at 21.9% of registered voters. In Payson’s 2019 ranked choice voting election, turnout was up to 31.61%.

Hatch argued that ranked choice voting’s more complex voting process may actually decrease voter participation for the elderly, voters of color, and voters of lower education.

“It is easy to explain the process from the voter’s perspective, but explaining how the votes are actually counted almost always leaves people scratching their heads. This leads to reduced confidence in the results,” Hatch said.

A study by Jason McDaniel, an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University, shows that ranked choice voting has been proven to actually reduce voter turnout by 3 to 5 percentage points.

Hatch and his association are wary of the statewide adoption of ranked choice voting as proposed in HB127 because it would transfer the job of counting votes from county clerks to the lieutenant governor’s office.

“The security risks related to the transmission — whether electronic or physical — are huge,” Hatch said. “The lieutenant governor’s office would then load the vote records into a separate system and run the ranking rounds. They will have to do this every time a county sends them updated results. With 29 counties releasing results almost daily, this becomes a logistical and security nightmare.”

Consequently, ranked choice voting might delay the release of statewide election results.

In addition, some voters may have no say in the final outcome. For example, if there were four names on a ballot and a voter only ranked two, who were both eliminated, the ballot would not have expressed any choice about the leading candidates.

Despite this possible drawback, Holindrake said ranked choice voting promotes majority rule with the result that “voters will have a greater say in who is elected.”

In 2019, The Center for Election Science conducted a national poll of 2,399 likely voters regarding their awareness and feelings on different voting methods. According to the survey, there is little support for ranked choice voting among Republicans nationwide (2%) and in the Mountain West (6%).

Fully 84% of Republicans in the Mountain West region prefer to keep the election method the way it is. Meanwhile, 53% of Democrats and 45% of independent voters are interested in alternative voting methods.

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