What to expect on Tuesday’s election night in Utah and how it will be different this time

Ranked-choice voting adds new wrinkle to getting the results.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Susan Janes sorts ballots at the Salt Lake County Government Center on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021.

By Tuesday evening, many of you will have long since mailed in your ballots. Or maybe you dropped them off. Some of you might have even voted in person, the old-fashioned way.

Now it’s time to find out who won.

You will, but it might not happen on election night, depending on what city you live in and what race you are following. You’ll get preliminary results, for sure, but some contests in Utah will be hard to call.

For days, maybe weeks.

As a state, we’ll get there. All we need is a little patience.

The 2021 municipal election is not just a vote-by-mail affair — in which valid ballots can trickle in after Election Day — it is also an experiment in ranked-choice voting for 23 local governments, including Salt Lake City.

This has led to more candidates in some contests, and that means tabulating the vote will be different. Here’s a look at what you can expect on election night and how to vote if you haven’t done so already.

How does ranked-choice voting work?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Laura Jacobs runs the Agilis ballot-sorting machine at the Salt Lake County Government Center on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021.

First, here are the municipalities that have ranked-choice voting:

• In Salt Lake County — Salt Lake City, Sandy, Cottonwood Heights, Bluffdale, Draper, Riverton, Midvale, Millcreek, South Salt Lake and Magna Metro Township.

• In Utah County — Lehi, Payson, Springville, Vineyard, Woodland Hills, Elk Ridge, Goshen and Genola.

• In Cache County — Newton, Nibley and River Heights.

• And elsewhere, Heber City and Moab.

If you are in those cities, you can vote for just your favorite candidate as always. You also can list your second choice and third choice and so on for as many candidates as there are in each race.

You can’t pick a first choice, skip a second choice and then list a third choice, though. That won’t get counted. But you could pick a first and second choice and stop there if you want.

When the votes make it to the clerk’s office, all of the first-place selections will be tallied. The candidate who comes in last will get eliminated, and those ballots will be scanned for second choices and reassigned. This process will continue until someone claims more than 50% of the vote.

All of this math is done by computers, and, as computers constantly remind us, they do it quickly.

What will get reported on election night?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Earlene Lanouette sorts ballots at the Salt Lake County Government Center on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021.

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen plans to release the bulk of the election results shortly after the polls close at 8 p.m. This release will include all mail-in ballots previously counted.

Then, a few hours later, Swensen’s team will update those results with tallies from early votes and in-person voting on Election Day. This will be most, but not all of the ballots. It won’t count mail-in ballots dropped off on Election Day or those postmarked on or before Nov. 1, the day before the election, that for whatever reason take a few days to arrive. Cities have until Nov. 16 to certify the results.

“Of course,” Swensen said, “no one can win until all the ballots are processed.”

For cities sticking with a traditional election, like West Valley City, Tuesday night will feel pretty standard. The totals will show who received the most votes at that point. Simple, though a tight race will mean waiting for any outstanding ballots to be tallied.

For ranked-choice voting cities, it is different. Every time the clerk releases more results, whether on election night or in subsequent days, the clerk will reapply the math, starting with the first choices of every voter. You’ll be able to see what happens in each “phase” on the clerk’s website.

So with the 8 p.m. release, the computer will identify candidates who are eliminated and retabulate until one candidate gets more than 50%. This will be rerun later in the evening and again when Swensen’s team releases more results Thursday.

“You might think of it as hitting refresh,” she said.

With each release of ballots, the results will become more firm and, as often happens, some candidates will concede and some will claim a victory.

What if you haven’t voted yet?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A voter drops his primary election ballot in the drop box at Murray City Hall, on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021.

You are in good company and you still can.

Swensen said in Salt Lake County, as of Thursday, 15% of people have returned their ballots, which she described as “disappointing.” In the 2019 municipal races, 24% of voters participated.

The easiest way to vote is using the ballot that has been mailed to you. If you get it postmarked on or before Monday, it will count. If not, then you can drop it off to a ballot box Tuesday or bring it to a voting center.

In Salt Lake County, there are 22 voting centers. You can find them at got-vote.org. If you live in another county, you can search the county website or call the county government.

You can also vote in person on Election Day. You will need to bring your ID. In Utah, you can even register to vote on Election Day and then cast a provisional ballot. To do this, you’ll need an ID and proof of residency, like a utility bill or a bank statement.

If you need help deciding whom to vote for, check out the handy Salt Lake County voter guide from The Salt Lake Tribune. You can find it at sltrib.com/decision2021. You can also see additional stories on some of the major races and issues at sltrib.com/news/politics.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Stephanie Olnedo files a box of ballots after scanning them at the Salt Lake County Government Center on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021.