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Sandy residents may be using ranked-choice voting in this year’s election

Some council members say the city is fertile ground for new voting “experiment,” even as candidates line up to become the next mayor.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) In-person voting at the Salt Lake County Government Center on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020.

Sandy residents could see a new form of voting in this year’s municipal elections, even as seven candidates and counting have jumped into the race for mayor.

The City Council decided Tuesday to put a resolution forward that could lead to ranked-choice voting, a system in which residents can vote for multiple candidates in order of their preference. The Utah Legislature opened the door for cities and towns to experiment with ranked-choice elections in 2018 and expanded the program this year.

“This is a way for additional candidates to have access to run” for office, said council member Zach Robinson. “There really is no wasted vote here.”

Vineyard and Payson were the first Utah municipalities to give ranked-choice voting a try during the 2019 election. Voters and candidates rated the system favorably, according to a presentation by Stan Lockhart with Utah Ranked Choice Voting, who cited a poll that found 86% of residents from those cities found the method easy to use and 82.5% said it should continue in future elections.

“It’s a different way of campaigning,” Lockhart said. “Instead of focusing on your base of support, you go outside that base to every voter and say, ‘I’d like to have your support’ ... You really need to approach all voters to make your case that you’re the best candidate.”

Ranked choice also eliminates the need for a primary election, Lockhart said, which can reduce city and candidate costs.

But Sandy is much bigger than Vineyard and Payson. Only 3,800 ballots were cast in those cities combined, according to longtime Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen. Sandy has more than 57,000 active voters.

Several other Salt Lake County cities have expressed interest in ranked-choice voting, including Salt Lake City, Cottonwood Heights and Riverton.

City legislative bodies must notify the lieutenant governor’s office before May 10 if they plan to participate in the pilot ranked-choice voting program this year, but Sandy’s City Council must make a decision by month’s end to have enough time to properly notify potential candidates.

The council will formally discuss, take public comment and potentially vote on the option at its next business meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, April 20.

It would be an interesting election for the city to adopt a new voting system. Mayor Kurt Bradburn announced earlier this year that he wouldn’t seek reelection, and numerous residents are vying to taking his place. Seven candidates have filed to take his place so far, including four current council members — Monica Zoltanski, Brooke Christensen, Marci Houseman and Kristin Coleman-Nicholl. The other three candidates include Jim Bennett, son for the late U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett; Linda Saville, a former City Council member; and Mike Applegarth, the City Council executive director.

“I’m a little concerned about implementing it when we’re already this far into an election cycle,” Christensen said. “We’re at a weird spot in our city ... campaigning is already in full force.”

Other council members noted that the city would need to update its financial disclosure rules for campaigns, especially if the city opts to eliminate its primary election. Some also wondered about the need to limit the number of candidates a voter can rank to prevent “voter fatigue.”

Council Chair Cyndi Sharkey said ranked-choice voting would lead to a more gratifying experience for most voters.

“If we’re going to conduct a worthwhile experiment, I sort of think there’s no better ground to do it in than Sandy,” Sharkey said. “I think the conditions that exist in this voting period make this an especially positive and worthwhile experience for all of us.”

She added that while the election might be in full swing for some of the city’s candidates, that wasn’t yet the case for residents.

“We have plenty of time,” Sharkey said. “November is quite a ways away.”

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