Utah lawmakers expand ranked choice voting experiment

City officials would have the option to contract with other county clerks to conduct ranked choice voting elections.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) In this Oct. 2020, file photo, Evelyn Beguiristain drops her ballot in the vote-by-mail ballot drop box at the Salt Lake County Government Center. A pilot project allowing municipalities to give ranked choice voting a try is expanded under a bill that passed on the last night of the legislative session.

The Utah Legislature has given final approval to a bill that would allow more cities to try ranked choice voting in their local elections, beginning this year.

HB75, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper, would broaden an existing ranked choice voting pilot project that the Legislature passed in 2018. The program allows municipalities to give the alternative kind of election a try before ranked choice voting is adopted more widely, if at all.

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 as in 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. It is designed to ensure that the winner has support from a majority of participating voters.

Two Utah cities already adopted ranked choice voting for city council races: Payson and Vineyard. In 2019, Payson elected three city council members using ranked choice voting.

Another bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, would have adopted ranked choice voting for all state or county primary elections with more than two candidates. However, HB127 died without a public hearing.

The first version of HB75 would have required county clerks to administer this type of election if a city chose to try it, raising the hackles of county clerks who felt it would bring too many complications.

“County clerks feel they’re being coerced by the state. We should not mandate the counties to provide the service,” Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, said during floor debate. “The issue comes down to a separation of powers, not among branches of government but among levels of government.”

Stenquist said perceived inconveniences in administering elections should not prevent cities who want to use this new system from doing so.

“I know at least half a dozen cities just in Salt Lake County that want to try this and yet the county clerk is refusing to do it,” Stenquist said. “And that, I believe, needs to be resolved.”

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen disputed Stenquist’s claim, saying the voting equipment now in place in the county is not compatible with ranked choice voting. The county is in the process of installing a new system that should be able to accommodate the change, she said.

Swensen said she has had several cities expressing interest in ranked choice voting for their municipal elections, including Salt Lake City, Riverton and Cottonwood Heights. Millcreek and West Jordan are also said to be looking at the voting method.

An amendment that finally broke the legislative logjam that had stalled the bill allows cities the option of contracting with a county clerk in a different jurisdiction to administer a ranked choice vote election.

“We think this is the best compromise we can come up with,” Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, said.

Stenquist said he knows that the Utah County clerk, which has conducted ranked choice voting for two of its cities would be willing to contract with cities outside its boundaries.

Editor’s note: 12:50 p.m., Monday, March 8. This story has been updated to include comments from Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen about her county’s inability to switch to ranked choice voting with its current system.