Spencer Cox earned 36.4% of votes in Utah’s Republican primary last week, enough to win him the nomination and a very clear path to becoming governor.
Although Democrat Chris Peterson awaits Cox in the general election, the race will most likely not be competitive. A Democrat hasn’t won the Utah governor’s race since 1980, and hasn’t received more than 30% of the vote since 2004. Utah’s status as a predominately red state means that the Republican party primary is the most important election of the year — the one that ultimately decides who will become governor.
Our current electoral process leaves much to be desired, and has room for more inclusive campaigning and competitive general elections.
Party primaries leave out large portions of the constituency. This is especially true for closed primaries, like Utah’s, in which you must be a registered Republican to vote. For example, although there are over 1.5 million registered voters in Utah, less than half voted in the Republican primary, meaning the rest had no say in who our next governor will be. This is not only a small group of people, but it also tends to be a more ideological group, leading to candidates’ platforms being tailored to people unrepresentative of the whole state.
The primary election (and most elections around the country) use plurality voting, meaning that the candidate who receives the greatest share of votes wins, even if that candidate does not receive a majority. This system is flawed for two reasons.
First, in a more crowded race, a candidate, such as Spencer Cox, can win the nomination even though nearly two-thirds of the primary electorate voted against him.
Second, new candidates are discouraged from running in fear that they may spoil the election (think of how you weren’t supposed to vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein in 2016). This was the case when Gov. Gary Herbert asked Thomas Wright to drop out of the race in May, fearing that he would cost Cox the election.
So how do we fix a system in which a candidate can cruise to a general election victory after receiving votes from just a fraction of the state’s registered voters?
Here’s how it works: Party primary elections would be replaced with a single, nonpartisan primary. The top five finishers from this primary would advance to the general election, where ranked choice voting would be used to determine a winner. Ranked choice voting entails voters ranking the candidates in the order they would prefer. If a candidate has a majority of first place votes (at least 50%), they win the election as usual. If no candidate has a majority, the candidate with the least first place votes is eliminated, and those ballots go to the voters’ second choices. This process continues until a candidate has a majority.
This system would have many benefits.
First, it rewards candidates who appeal to a majority of the general electorate, meaning targeting a platform to a small group is a losing strategy.
Second, the general election would be competitive, and would become the most important election in the process.
Third, this system encourages third-party and independent candidacies, as the spoiler effect and wasted vote arguments are thrown out the window. People could vote their true preferences without worrying about electability and throwing away their vote.
Let’s build an election system that features more fair results and incentivizes campaigning based on problem-solving, not ideology.
Andrew Cotter, Salt Lake City, is a third-year student at the University of Utah studying economics and political science.