Commentary: Salt Lake City should lead on ranked-choice voting

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People arrive to vote at the Salt Lake County complex for primary election day on Tuesday, June 26, 2018.

Ranked-choice voting has been a staple of elections around the world for decades and, thanks to the relentless work of Utah state Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck and countless others, it is finally available to Utah voters in cities that choose to enroll in the pilot program.

To date, three have notified the lieutenant governor’s office of their interest: Lehi, Salem and West Jordan. Salt Lake City should add its name to the list, and it should do so now.

Ranked-choice is good for voters because it’s good for elections, and the 2019 Salt Lake City municipal races (mayor’s race and City Council seats 2, 4 and 6) are already shaping up to be hotly contested races that will need to tackle big issues.

Before I continue, let me just review how ranked-choice voting works. It’s simple, really. Voters rank the candidates on their ballot (first choice, second choice, third choice, et cetera). If no candidate receives the majority of “first choice” votes, the first-choice votes that went to the last-place candidate are eliminated and the remaining votes on the affected ballots are ticked up (second-choice votes are now first, third-choice votes are now second, you get the idea) and the vote tallies are updated. This continues until one candidate has a majority of first-choice votes, and it all happens seamlessly, without the need of any additional effort by voters.

So how does this way of voting really make a difference — or, more specifically, how will it make a difference for Salt Lake City? Let’s take the mayor’s race. By my count, seven or eight candidates have already announced or are in the wings. Ranked-choice voting was designed so that the outcomes of larger races (like this one) better reflect the actual will of the people.

Let’s say that taco trucks are a big issue and the majority of Salt Lakers want more taco trucks. In the current system, it would be possible for three or four pro-taco truck candidates to split the pro-taco truck vote and an anti-taco truck candidate — who doesn’t represent the will of the people — could slip through. But with ranked-choice voting, voters would rank pro-taco truck candidates high and and anti-taco truck candidates low, and the final result would reflect the will of the people: One of the pro-taco truck candidates would win.

Similarly, ranked-choice voting rewards candidates who address multiple issues as they seek to garner not only first-choice votes but second-choice and third-choice votes as well. And in an election where there is plenty to talk about, this means the electorate has a better chance of arriving at the ballot box better informed. Ranked-choice voting also rewards more civil discourse, as candidates are encouraged to court voters across the board as they pursue those important second- and third-choice votes.

These may be why jurisdictions that roll out ranked-choice voting often see an increase in voter turnout — so important as Salt Lake City prepares to tackle some of the biggest challenges it’s ever faced. It has become a cliché for politicians to claim that this or that election is the most important ever, but I can’t think of an election where Salt Lake City has faced issues of such grave import — climate change, a population explosion, the threat that online retail poses to our home-grown economy, just to name a few.

Now is the time for the city to embrace ranked-choice voting.

D. Christian Harrison is president and chairman of the Salt Lake City Downtown Community Council.