Salt Lake City Council discusses whether to participate in ranked-choice voting pilot program

Salt Lake County is interested in offering a ranked-choice voting option to cities.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) In this Nov. 4, 2020 file photo, ballots are sorted for scanning at the Salt Lake County offices in Salt Lake City. Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said Salt Lake County will accommodate a new type of election, ranked choice voting.

The Salt Lake City Council is expected to take another look at ranked-choice voting in April after Gov. Spencer Cox and state lawmakers approved legislation that broadens an existing pilot program.

The program was originally passed by the Utah Legislature in 2018. The program allows municipalities to test the alternative election process before ranked-choice voting is adopted more widely, if at all.

A city’s legislative body has to notify the lieutenant governor’s office before May 10 to participate in the pilot program in this year’s municipal elections.

Salt Lake City is among several local governments deciding whether or not to give it a try. Cottonwood Heights is interested in evaluating the ranked-choice voting option and “will be having further discussions about it” before the deadline, according to Lindsay Wilcox, the city’s communications manager.

Ranked-choice voting is an electoral system that allows voters to rank candidates by preference instead of choosing one candidate for a position.

An earlier draft of the ranked-choice voting pilot, HB75, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper, would have required county clerks to administer this type of election if a city chose to try it. The mandatory nature of the legislation raised the hackles of county clerks who felt it would bring too many complications and didn’t agree with being forced to conduct the election.

“County clerks … were opposed to counties being forced to conduct city elections,” Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said, adding that a tremendous amount of work was done to get the bill changed to the version that passed.

The bill now allows cities to contract with a county clerk outside where the city is located to conduct a ranked-choice voting election.

Swensen said Salt Lake County will be offering a ranked-choice voting option “to cities with whom we contract to administer their elections, with a new voting system in place that will accommodate ranked-choice voting.”

Municipal elections are the statutory duty of city recorders, but many county clerks have offered the administration of city elections as a contract option before.

“It has always been a mutual agreement between the city and the county where [administering city elections] has been done, not forced,” Swensen said.

The cost of ranked-choice voting remains a debated topic. On one hand, primary elections may be eliminated as ranked-choice voting requires only a single round of voting: one ballot with multiple choices per voter.

“Instead of holding a primary election, all the candidates proceed to the November general election ballot where they are ranked by the voters. Therefore, a primary could be excluded,” Swensen said.

On the other hand, Salt Lake City Council staffer Ben Luedtke worried that if a ballot was long, or required an extra page, there would be an additional cost. Currently, there is no limit in Utah law as to how many candidates can be ranked.

“If we had a two-card ballot countywide, it would cost an additional $194,000,” Swensen said in a Salt Lake City Council meeting on Feb. 16.

In addition, challenges or reviews of ballots flagged to determine voter intent would be slower than normal because of the greater complexity of multiple candidate ballots.

For example, a voter may change his or her mind and cross out a number on the ballot to rank another candidate instead. Every time someone on a paper ballot makes a mark on the ballot or writes notes, it pulls the ballot out of the normal process to determine the voter intent.

However, Swensen said that any additional time needed to adjudicate ballots would be offset by the lack of a primary, leading to “less work overall.”

Additional resources would be required to conduct wide-scale ranked-choice voting. In last month’s City Council meeting, members discussed what was needed to participate in the pilot program. This includes having the necessary resources and equipment to conduct a ranked-choice voting election.

The County Clerk’s office signed a contract Dec. 31 to get new voting equipment to conduct ranked-choice voting elections.

In a Salt Lake City Council announcement on March 23, the Salt Lake City recorder’s office provided updates on the potential for Salt Lake City to hold a ranked-choice voting election in November. Swensen confirmed her office would be able to provide ranked-choice voting as an option for the 2021 municipal election using Dominion Voting Systems equipment.

In a 2020 letter to Swensen, Councilman Chris Wharton and Mayor Erin Mendenhall wrote of their support of trying ranked-choice voting in the 2021 municipal election, but noted that the change must include public education well in advance of Election Day.

“Providing voters with greater choice at the general election when turnout is historically much higher makes for a stronger election,” Wharton and Mendenhall wrote. “Other potential benefits [include] sustaining or even growing higher voter turnout, ensuring every ballot cast ‘counts,’ even when a candidate withdraws from a race, and the chance for a more inclusive election wherein candidates appeal to a broader audience.”

Two Utah cities previously adopted ranked-choice voting for city council races: Payson and Vineyard, both in Utah County.

“The pilot of ranked-choice voting in Payson City and Vineyard City during the 2019 election cycle was a successful example [of a ranked-choice voting election] by many accounts,” Wharton and Mendenhall wrote.

In an effort to educate residents about ranked-choice voting, Vineyard City put together a video on how ranked-choice voting works.

“The election went really well, and our city council was all onboard with it,” Pamela Spencer, Vineyard City recorder, said. “Although our resident population is much smaller than [Salt Lake City’s], our residents thought it went well.” Spencer noted that few questions were asked about the voting method, and most people understood how to mark their ballot after the education efforts.

In a March 23 Salt Lake City Council meeting, Amy Fowler, Salt Lake City Council chair, said the city needed to ensure “fully educating communities about ranked-choice voting.” Public outreach efforts — as successfully done with the transition to vote by mail in 2015 — are necessary to avoid voter confusion, errors and facilitate a timely count of results.

“In 2015, the city put together an interdepartmental committee that had $66,000 for a six-month public education effort about the switch to vote by mail,” Luedtke said. “The council has expressed interest in a similar outreach effort for the switch to ranked-choice voting.”

Spencer said she liked the way ranked-choice voting was conducted in Vineyard. “A lot of times I voted against somebody rather than for somebody. I feel like ranked choice took that away. You still get to vote for who you want.”

The Salt Lake City Council is expected to take another look at the election method in April, with May 4 being the last regularly scheduled meeting for the Salt Lake City Council to adopt the resolution for a ranked-choice voting election this year.