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A nonpartisan primary and ranked-choice voting? Utah ballot initiative could upend how we vote.

Backers say it would make elections more fair but opponents cite chaos, high costs

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sam Stamos scans ballots at the Salt Lake County offices in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020.

A proposed ballot initiative aims to upend Utah’s election system and could make the state’s political landscape almost completely unrecognizable.

The proposed change would dispense with partisan primary elections, in which political parties send the top vote-getter to the general election. Instead, the “Fair Elections Initiative” creates a single, nonpartisan primary election including all candidates. The top five finishers in that primary election advance to the November general election, regardless of political party.

The November general election would no longer crown the top vote-getter as the winner, regardless of whether the candidate secures a majority or not. Instead, the winner would be determined by ranked-choice voting. Voters rank the candidates in order of preference. If none of the candidates gets a majority when the votes are counted, the one with the lowest number of votes is eliminated, and those ballots are redistributed to the voters’ second choices. That process continues until one candidate wins a majority.

The idea is similar to a ballot initiative approved by voters in Alaska in 2020, but Alaska only advances four candidates to the November ballot instead of the proposed five.

The goal is to give voters more choices at the ballot box and to make sure the eventual winner has secured a clear majority.

In three high-profile Utah primary elections in 2020, candidates with less than 50% of the vote won. Spencer Cox emerged from a five-person field to win the Republican nomination for governor with just over 36% of the vote. Blake Moore captured the GOP nomination for the 1st Congressional District over three other candidates with 31%. Burgess Owens became the Republican nominee in the 4th District, defeating three rivals with 43.5%. All three went on to win the November election.

Proponents of ranked-choice voting say it’s more fair and changes the way candidates campaign. There’s less of an incentive to go negative or attack opponents if candidates are hoping to be a second or third choice on the ballot. It also eliminates the “spoiler effect” in which more extreme candidates siphon votes away from others. The eventual winner also secures a majority of the vote.

Maury Giles, one of the sponsors of the initiative, said via email the initiative is an attempt to create more fair and transparent elections in Utah.

“We’re still in an early exploratory phase on this and Utah law requires us to undergo a rigorous process with several steps in order to gain ballot access,” Giles said. “Our submission to the Lieutenant Governor’s office for review is a first step in that process as we consider whether to move forward in this cycle or beyond.”

The proposal repeals Utah’s contentious dual-path nominating system that’s been in place since 2014. Instead of giving candidates the option of gathering signatures to get on the primary ballot, winning the nomination through the party convention or both, signature gathering would be the sole mechanism for securing a spot in the primary.

‘Obliterates our election system’

Utah Republican Party Chairman Carson Jorgensen says, at first blush, the initiative eliminates the need for political parties in the state.

“This obliterates our election system and starts us over,” Jorgensen said.

In a way, that’s true. Candidates can run under the banner of whichever political party they choose. But ballots will contain language stressing that party affiliation is not an official endorsement by that party.

“This just opens the door to having 150 candidates in a primary,” Jorgensen said.

The initiative also lowers the number of signatures candidates need to collect. For a statewide office, the requirement drops from 28,000 to just 9,000. A congressional candidate would need 2,000 signatures instead of 7,000.

Voters could also sign multiple petitions for candidates running for the same office. Right now, they’re limited to just one.

Ranked-choice voting is not unfamiliar to Utah voters. Two cities in Utah County were part of a pilot program that used the system for their municipal elections in 2019. That has been expanded to 23 cities this year.

The pilot program was the brainchild of Utah Ranked Choice Voting. Stan Lockhart, who heads that group, is clear his organization has nothing to do with the proposed initiative.

“We chose a very deliberate measure approach. If it goes well this year, we’ll talk with lawmakers about expanding it,” Lockhart said. “The best way to do this is to work together with policymakers over time.”

He worries the initiative might be too radical of a change in too short of a time.

“This is going to be a challenge for us,” Lockhart said. “An outside entity has come in with a proposal that makes sweeping changes. It’s just less than ideal.”

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Government Operations Committee, was less diplomatic when told about the proposal.

“This is a terrible plan,” Thatcher said.

Thatcher pointed to New York City’s use of ranked-choice voting in the recent mayoral primary as a good example of the challenges. It took several days before the eventual winner was decided as votes were reallocated. Eric Adams, who won the Democratic primary, saw his lead shrink from 75,000 votes on election night to just over 7,000 once the ranked choices were counted. Thatcher also said waiting for the remaining mail-in and overseas ballots to be counted could damage faith in elections.

“Can you imagine what would happen if as the votes are redistributed the person leading on election night all of a sudden is losing?” Thatcher said. “People would lose their minds.”

Weber County Clerk Ricky Hatch says changing the state’s elections to ranked-choice voting, while doable, could bring some unintended consequences. First, the ballots would need to be transported to a central location so votes could be redistributed correctly. Right now, ballots are counted by county officials.

“It would change the nature of the Lieutenant Governor’s Office,” Hatch said. “They would become the tabulator of the ballots rather than just the overseer of the election.”

He also thinks the change would add significant costs, the least of which would be educating voters about the change.

“The ballot would be more complicated, meaning we would have to spend money teaching voters about the changes,” Hatch said. “That would decrease over time as they became more familiar with the system, but it could be significant at the start.”

Hatch also warns changing to ranked-choice voting would make the ballots longer. That increases increase printing costs. Postage costs could rise, too, as larger ballots would cost more to mail.

The initiative also tasks the Lieutenant Governor’s Office with implementing a thorough audit system to ensure votes were counted correctly.

Next steps

The issue could be put to voters in November 2022, but there’s a long road ahead.

If the lieutenant governor approves the initiative, backers need to hold at least seven public hearings around the state and prepare a fiscal impact statement to demonstrate how much the initiative would cost if it were to become law. Reasons for rejecting an initiative include being unconstitutional, if it’s deemed “nonsensical,” or it could not become law if passed.

Then they would still need to collect nearly 138,000 signatures. They must also meet specific signature thresholds in 26 of the state’s 29 state Senate districts. Sponsors have until Feb. 15 to meet those requirements.

If Utah voters approved the measure, the Utah Legislature still has the ability to alter the initiative before it takes effect.

In 2018, ballot initiatives legalizing medical cannabis, expanding Medicare, and creating an independent redistricting commission passed at the ballot box but then lawmakers changed them significantly after their passage.

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