Ranked choice voting. Passing fad, or here to stay?

Nearly two dozen Utah cities used ranked choice voting this year. Backers hope to convince lawmakers to expand that number.

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) Ballots are shown in the elections management center at Salt Lake County Government Center Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

Voters in 23 Utah cities used ranked choice voting on Election Day this year, which is an increase from two cities in 2019. Backers say they’re hoping to convince lawmakers to expand RCV even further.

“We’ve had a very positive reception from the legislature, and we expect another positive reception from them in the coming session,” Stan Lockhart of Utah Ranked Choice Voting.

The voting method allows voters to rank candidates from first to last place. If a candidate gets a majority when the first-place votes are counted, the election is over. If there is no majority, the last-place candidate is eliminated and those votes are redistributed to the next choice. The process continues until one candidate gets over 50 percent.

The concept is not a new one. The 2004 Republican race for governor used ranked choice voting to determine the party’s nominee. The Utah Republican and Democratic parties used it last year in their nominating conventions.

Right now, ranked choice voting is just a pilot program allowing cities to opt-in to the system for their municipal elections. Payson and Vineyard were the first to participate in 2019. In January, lawmakers expanded the pilot program to include more municipalities.

Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, sponsored a bill in the 2020 session to use ranked choice balloting in partisan primaries with three or more candidates. That legislation died without a committee hearing. Winder says he’s working with Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, on a bill for the 2021 session.

“While we haven’t finalized any specific proposal, we have a bill file open and are watching closely this year’s municipal elections to see how the public responds to RCV,” Winder said.

How will supporters convince lawmakers to support any expansion? They say a positive voter experience is their best lobbying tool.

“We did a survey in 2019 of voters that used ranked choice voting, and over 80 percent said they liked it and either wanted to continue it for local elections or expand it statewide,” Utah County Clerk Josh Daniels said.

Former state Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, who helped shepherd the pilot program through the Legislature, says they find voters like having more choice on the ballot.

“I’d go door-to-door and people would say sometimes they like more than one candidate on the ballot, and they don’t want to choose. Ranked choice is a perfect option to allow voters to say they like one candidate, but they would be fine with another candidate, too,” Chavez-Houck said.

It won’t be smooth sailing for ranked choice supporters next year. Some lawmakers would very much like to repeal the pilot program. Former Rep. Steve Christiansen was working on legislation to eliminate the ranked choice voting and vote-by-mail in Utah.

Others would like to shift to a method called “approval voting”, where voters cast a ballot for more than one candidate. Instead of multiple rounds of voting, there’s only one tabulation, and the candidate with the most votes wins.

Ammon Gruwell of Utah Approves, the organization behind the push for approval voting, says that method is cheaper to implement and easier to run.

“Since voting is no longer an either-or proposition, candidates are motivated to appeal to the broadest possible electorate, resulting in more positive campaigning. Approval voting allows voters to be more expressive and reduces the spoiler effect so that people can vote their conscience instead of always being forced to support the lesser of two evils,” Gruwell says.

He said a bill to add approval voting to the ranked choice voting pilot program will be heard in the 2022 session.