Robert Gehrke: Roughly a dozen Utah cities and towns will be trying ranked-choice elections this year — with good reason

Elections could be faster, cheaper and more civil if voters can rank every candidate on the ballot.

Coming soon to an election near you, a chance to vote for the candidate you believe in, without worrying about throwing your vote away.

Given the all-or-nothing political world we’re used to, it almost sounds too good to be true.

But this year more than a dozen Utah cities and towns have already approved or are giving serious consideration to trying out ranked-choice voting in their 2021 municipal elections.

If you’re not familiar with ranked-choice voting, you’re not alone. It works like this: Instead of voting for one candidate, I would rank my choices, first, second, third, etc.

If my favorite candidate finishes last, that candidate would get dropped and my vote would roll over to my second choice. Then the last place candidate would be dropped and all of his or her votes would roll to the next choice until one candidate gets more than half the total votes.

There are a handful of advantages.

As I mentioned, there’s the benefit of being able to vote for who you want without having to strategize which candidates have the most realistic chance of winning. You aren’t forced to vote between the “lesser of two evils.”

Proponents contend it will change the tone of campaigns. If candidates need voters’ second or third choices, rather than just first, campaigns are not zero-sum games, meaning political attacks might be risky.

It’s cheaper, eliminating the need for a primary election. All the candidates — at least in non-partisan municipal races — can just go to one general election. That means, at least theoretically, the election season could be shorter and less expensive for candidates.

And there is research that shows ranked choice voting yields more office holders who are women or from marginalized communities.

List of cities still growing

Two years ago, the Legislature gave cities and towns the option of piloting ranked choice voting and two — Vineyard and Payson — gave it a shot.

This year, they won’t be so alone. Draper, Riverton and Millcreek have committed to using ranked-choice voting, as have Woodland Hills and Lehi in Utah County, Heber City and Newton in Cache County.

On Tuesday, the Salt Lake City Council is scheduled to vote on whether to try out the new system, and Sandy City has a vote scheduled later this month.

“We would have more cities in Utah doing it than any other state in the country, and we’re looking at that as a feather in the cap,” said Kory Holdaway, a former state legislator lobbying on behalf of the group FairVote. “It’s better, faster and cheaper.”

Salt Lake Councilman Chris Wharton said his constituents were asking him about it during his first run for the council, and it seemed like an idea worth trying.

“I’ve been proud that Salt Lake City has been at the forefront of a lot of different election reform measures in the past,” Wharton told me, “like moving to vote-by-mail and trying to have more transparency and more requirements on campaign finances. I think this is the next logical step.”

Mayor Erin Mendenhall co-authored a letter to Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen last year supporting the change in voting. But at that time, the county was facing considerable hurdles.

The biggest obstacle was that the county’s voting machines couldn’t accommodate ranked choice voting, meaning the city would have had to contract with another county to administer the elections, a change that was permitted by a bill passed in the last legislative session.

But new equipment ordered in late December arrived recently, and staff spent time earlier this month training on the equipment.

“After having discussed it with [our vendor], met with them, had training with them, we feel confident we’ll be able to implement it very efficiently,” Swensen told me.

Vote by mail gets harder

So if the experiment goes well this year, the next step is to take the new voting method statewide, right? Maybe not.

“If they ever apply this to the general election, it would squash our vote-by-mail system,” Swensen said.

That’s because each race would take up more space on the ballot. For a general election, she said, the ballot would be at least five pages long. Each page of the ballot would need to be signed and the signatures verified. If pages are missing or a voter makes mistakes or tries to change their order of candidates, it will create administrative headaches.

Abandoning vote-by-mail would make things easier, but then counties would have to spend millions on new voting machines.

“It seems simple to the people who don’t conduct the elections,” she said, “but you’ve got to understand the complications it puts on a vote-by-mail system.”

So if Utah wants to take this statewide, there are issues that will need to be worked out and obviously will need to be done uniformly across the state (since you can’t have voters in one county voting differently in a statewide race than voters in the next county over).

But for now, let’s hope Salt Lake and Sandy and as many cities as possible take this first step to try this new way of voting, and maybe — just maybe — it will help change the way we approach our elections.