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Polling shows the public liked ranked choice voting, but Robert Gehrke explains why expanding it might be tough

Nearly 90% of voters liked ranking candidates, but logistical and political hurdles may keep it from going statewide.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Utah’s experiment with ranked choice voting appears to have gone over big with voters, according to a new poll that backers of the voting method hope gives momentum to further expansion of the system.

Just how popular was it?

The poll found that 86% of voters in cities and towns that used ranked choice voting were either satisfied or very satisfied with the voting method, 81% said it was very easy or somewhat easy to use, and 63% somewhat liked it or liked it a great deal.

That is solid support, probably better than I would have anticipated — in part because there is concerted opposition among Trump loyalists who have woven ranked choice voting into their massive election fraud conspiracies, but more so because whenever we throw a new wrinkle into an established process there are bound to be hiccups.

But 90% of respondents said the instructions were either very clear or somewhat clear. So folks figured it out.

Utah Ranked Choice Voting, the advocacy group that has pushed the voting method in the state for the last several years, hired Y2 Analytics to survey 1,471 voters in the 23 cities and towns using ranked choice this year.

“Utah voters have spoken,” said Stan Lockhart, chairman of Utah Ranked Choice Voting. “The 2021 ranked choice voting municipal election was a tremendous success, and we look forward to working with policymakers and local leaders to expand the use of RCV in future Utah elections.”

Now, the traditional method of voting also got high marks. Y2 also polled voters in non-ranked choice cities and towns found they were also as pleased with the election process and outcomes as those ranking their votes.

Nonetheless, the polling shows there was not a big drop-off in the voter experience. And Lockhart touts some of the benefits, including money saved by not holding primary elections, a shorter election season, letting voters pick their favorite candidate instead of the least-bad option with a chance of winning, and more civil, issue-oriented campaigns.

Indeed, the Y2 poll found that 60% of ranked choice voters said they liked being able to vote for their favorite candidate without worrying it was a wasted vote, and 28% said they felt their elections were more civil.

Looking at election results from around the state, which still aren’t final, ranked choice voting didn’t appear to make a huge difference in outcomes, but there were a handful of races that were impacted. Two Newton City Council seats, for example, were swung by voters’ second choices, as were council seats in Sandy, Heber City, River Heights, Millcreek and Bluffdale. And with the margin in the Sandy mayoral race, now just 31 votes, there is a slim chance that could change thanks to ranked choice voting.

So armed with this polling and touting ranked choice voting’s benefits, the prospect of expanding it statewide is very much on the table.

Last year, West Valley City Rep. Mike Winder and Provo Sen. Curt Bramble sponsored a bill that would have expanded ranked choice voting, but it didn’t get a hearing. Winder is planning on sponsoring similar legislation in the upcoming session but hasn’t finalized what that will look like.

“[We] are looking at all options now that we have seen the big success of RCV in this year’s municipal elections,” he said. “Having RCV for statewide races and taking effect in 2022 is one of the options being considered.”

Winder’s previous bill would have only used ranked choice voting in partisan primaries, but in light of the success this year, he said his next bill might go further, potentially expanding it to all statewide elections.

There are, however, two potential obstacles to any expansion plans, one practical and the other political.

First, there are logistical challenges to taking ranked choice voting statewide. As you probably noticed, if you live in a ranked choice city, the voting grid needed takes up quite a bit more space than a traditional, pick-one ballot. The Sandy mayor’s race, for example, took most of a page to list the matrix with eight candidates.

That’s not a problem in municipal races with just a few contests, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen told me, but reproducing that in a statewide general election with multiple candidates competing in a U.S. Senate, congressional, legislative and school board races could mean the ballots would have to run several pages. That means more cost for printing and mailing and more time needed to process and count the votes.

The vote counting would also need to change. Instead of the 29 county clerks tabulating the votes and sending the numbers to the state, those statewide or multi-county races would have to be tabulated by the state elections office, according to Weber County Clerk Ricky Hatch. It can be done, but that system currently doesn’t exist at the state level.

The political challenge may be more daunting. As I mentioned, a faction of voters who believe the election is rigged has made ranked choice voting their latest boogeyman and have even said they plan a ballot initiative to force through a handful of election changes, including banning ranked choice. (Another group is pushing an initiative to expand ranked choice voting and do away with partisan primaries.)

The election fraud conspiracists are a small group, but they are loud, organized and have the ear of at least a handful of Republican legislators.

Then there’s Sen. Mike Lee who definitely has the ear of legislators and might have something to say about ranked choice voting’s future. Lee will be up for election in 2022 and is currently facing a challenge from two women — former Rep. Becky Edwards and Ally Isom, a former staffer for Gov. Gary Herbert — in the Republican primary. Now they would split the anti-Lee vote, but with ranked choice voting, that wouldn’t be the case.

The same math is true in the general election, where Lee would face a Democratic nominee and independent candidate Evan McMullin. Again, Lee would much rather see the votes against him split as many ways as possible, not rolled together via ranked choice.

So the ranked choice experiment went smooth. It has strong support from voters. Has some benefits, not the least of which is the cost savings. Ultimately, though, its fate will hinge on to what extent it can overcome election fraud conspiracists and plain-old political self-interest.

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