‘You talk to people that you may never talk to:’ Ranked choice voting can elevate our political campaigns, Gehrke writes

Ranked-choice voting offers residents better campaigns and a better way to elect representatives.

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

Two years ago, Sandy City used ranked choice voting in its municipal elections for the first time — and it worked like a dream.

Maybe you’ve heard of it or maybe your city has used it before. Instead of forcing voters to pick just one candidate — the least-bad option or the one who might actually have a shot at winning — voters rank the candidates from their favorite to their least favorite.

When ballots are counted, the candidate who gets the fewest votes is eliminated and the voters who picked that candidate have their votes roll over to their second choice, or third, or fourth, until one candidate wins a majority of the support.

Sandy’s mayoral field was packed with eight candidates vying to fill the open seat and no clear favorite. After the first round of vote counting, Monica Zoltanski led with just 21% with Jim Bennett on her heels at 19.5% and nearly three out of five voters backing someone else.

So the last-place candidate was dropped and his votes were reallocated. Then the new last place candidate was eliminated and her votes reassigned. It took seven rounds before Zoltanski cleared 50% and squeaked out a win over Bennett by just 21 votes.

“The mayoral election in Sandy was a very good application of ranked-choice voting,” Sandy councilwoman Cyndi Sharkey told me recently.

But after the election, Sharkey said residents were evenly split on whether they wanted to use ranked-choice voting again, according to scientific polling and surveys of residents.

It’s not too surprising, losing a close race still leaves a bad taste. At any rate, without a clear mandate from residents, Sandy is passing on ranked choice voting this time around.

And that’s unfortunate because consider what Sandy residents got from their experiment: They got a mayor who was — if not their first choice — one that more citizens wanted than didn’t; residents only had to pay for one election and candidates only had to run one campaign; and the three out of five voters who didn’t initially back Zoltanski or Bennett got to cast a ballot for the candidate they liked best, but still have their vote count in the final outcome.

And they’re an outlier among cities that used ranked-choice voting last time around.

A poll of residents statewide who used ranked-choice voting found that 86% were either satisfied or very satisfied with the new system. Nearly two-thirds said they liked it or liked it a great deal.

Vineyard Mayor Julie Fullmer said it changed the way candidates campaigned. Having to ask people to be their second choice, it turns out, makes you interact with voters you otherwise might not, and to do it more constructively.

“From the experience we went through as a city, it was a really remarkable and good thing for our community,” she said at a recent panel discussion at Utah Valley University.

And embedded in there, I believe, is the most powerful change we can make to our political system. For far too long, our politics have focused on dividing people into Republican or Democrat, red or blue. It has rewarded candidates for using wedge issues to drive us apart, to the point our neighbors end up enemies.

Now, turn that entire notion on its head. Instead of your campaign telling me, as a voter, how awful the other candidate is, tell me how good you are and why, even if I like someone else better, I should consider you as my second — or third.

It reframes our entire political debate.

Instead of the politics of personal destruction, we have a real competition of ideas. Instead of scorched Earth, we are planting seeds in common ground. The point of campaigning changes.

“You talk to people that you may never talk to,” said Kelleen Potter, the former mayor of Heber City who is now leading the push for ranked choice voting in Utah.

“You talk about issues you may never bring up because you never have to talk to people who might not be on your team,” she said. “It trains candidates to campaign differently and it trains voters to think differently about how they are voting. It’s not about are they on my team or not, are they bad or good? … It trains all of us to think differently and try to begin to solve some of this polarization and negativity we’re experiencing in our country with our elections.”

It’s instant coalition-building, finding and representing the mainstream of Utah, rather than exploiting the extremes.

This is where you are powerful. You can make a difference.

Ranked choice voting is uniquely well-suited for nonpartisan municipal elections, mostly because they don’t rely on exploiting partisan divides (presidential primaries have similar dynamics, and we should expand their use there, as well).

Cities have until May 1 to decide whether to use ranked-choice voting or whether to continue with the traditional path — with a primary election that produces two candidates where you can either vote for or (more likely) against one of them.

So far, only Millcreek, Salt Lake City, Midvale, Payson, Vineyard, South Salt Lake and Heber have opted for ranked choice voting.

If you want better from our political system, contact your city council member and make it clear that you support a better way.

We have the power to change our toxic politics. That begins with changing the way we vote. And that begins with you.