Katharine Biele: Salt Lake City mayor primary would have been a great time to use ranked choice voting

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Six of the eight primary election candidates for Salt Lake City mayor gather for a debate at the Salt Lake City Library on Wednesday, June 26, 2019. From left: David Ibarra, Jim Dabakis, Richard Goldberger, Stan Penfold, Erin Mendenhall and Luz Escamilla.

Nothing will change unless someone has the courage and foresight to move forward. That is the problem facing voters who are tired of contentious campaigns and enormously expensive elections, often funded by big donors and corporations.

The prospect of something easier and more reflective of the electorate has been dashed by fear and recalcitrance on the part of most city councils in Utah. Salt Lake City had the opportunity to run its mayoral election with an innovative tool called ranked choice voting, or instant runoff. With eight candidates vying for the position of mayor, what better time to take on the challenge? The Utah Legislature allowed municipalities the option of piloting RCV in this past election. Only two — Vineyard and Payson — moved forward. Salt Lake City refused.

Ranked choice voting is clear and easy for voters. It allows them to simply rate their candidate choices in order of preference. The vote happens only once, and in a process of elimination, the lowest-rated candidate drops off. If a voter rated that candidate No. 1, that voter’s second choice would be raised in a new tally. The process continues until one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote. In the end, voters may not get their first choice, but they can be satisfied that the winner had support from a majority of the electorate.

The League of Women Voters of Salt Lake decided to run a Mock RCV online just to show voters how easy and fair the process is. Obviously, the League did not require registrations because this was an educational effort. As it turned out, 528 people took advantage of the opportunity, which was explained at every juncture of the ranking. The League also provided explanatory text and links to states and cities that have already begun using RCV successfully.

The general response was surprise at how RCV works. It is not confusing — certainly not to the voter. And although the intent was not to reflect the actual outcome of the election, it turned out that the top vote-getters were the same as those who appear to have won the primary.

The City Council has replied that a massive and lengthy voter education has to take place before they would implement RCV. The education needs to be with the City Council, not the electorate.

Other concerns were cost, process and recording. None of these were at issue when Salt Lake moved to its present vote-by-mail system. The City Council is the legislative and policy-making arm of government, and simply told the county clerk to move ahead. She did, and the world did not implode.

As for cost, voters need only take a look at financial disclosures to see how much candidates are spending on their primary elections. Imagine reducing the cost by one election. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that candidates had raised $1.5 million by early August.

RCV promises to make elections more civil because candidates need to focus on the entire electorate, not just their base. And they can run a more issues-based campaign, unlike some of the nasty emails that were circulated in this primary.

Perhaps most important is that the voters will end up with a candidate who won more than 50 percent of the vote. This primary saw winners with just over 20 percent, and that is not a mandate. The winner may not be your first choice, but how about that second choice rather than your fourth or fifth?

Salt Lake City would not be alone. Many cities and states around the country are using RCV now, and without major problems. If incumbent council members are worried about their own elections, they should stop and think about the present state of our country. What we need now is statesmanship and moral leadership, less fear of the unknown and perhaps, just perhaps, a little courage.

Katharine Biele

Katharine Biele, Salt Lake City, is a freelance writer and president of the League of Women Voters of Salt Lake.