Four Utah County cities have opted in to a pilot program for a new type of voting procedure, allowing voters to rank multiple candidates in order of preference.
The six cities who made the Dec. 31 deadline to opt-in to the program are Cottonwood Heights, Lehi, Payson, Salem, Vineyard and West Jordan.
Those cities still have until May to opt-out, and several of them are still figuring out the logistics of what it would take to implement the new system for the 2019 elections.
How does it work?
Ranked-choice voting allows a voter to rank multiple candidates according to preference, rather than only voting for one candidate.
If a candidate receives more than half of the first-choice votes, they win the election. If no one receives more than half, however, the last-place candidate is eliminated. When a voter’s first choice is eliminated, their second choice is included in the count for the second round. That process continues until a candidate receives more than 50 percent.
Advocates of the system say benefits include obtaining a true majority winner and more civil races because candidates are trying to appeal to all voters, rather than just their base, because the candidate wants to be that voter’s second choice.
“You can’t just go after the base as much, because you want second- and third-place votes,” said Utah Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, who sponsored the legislation making the ranked-choice pilot program a reality.
A couple of examples given on the website http://utahrcv.com of elections that selected a winner with less than a majority of the vote included the 2017 Provo primary mayoral election, in which Michelle Kaufusi won the primary with about 30 percent of the vote, and won the general election with just over 40 percent over contenders Odell Miner and Sherrie Hall Everett.
“If ranked-choice voting had been used for the Provo election, Odell Miner would have been eliminated in the first round,” the website states. “Then for the second round, Miner’s voters could have had their second choice candidate included in the final count. The final vote would have included everyone’s choices and would have shown a clear majority winner.”
Another recent example of a candidate winning an election with no majority was the 2016 presidential election, in which Donald Trump won the state of Utah with only 45 percent of the vote, the remainder split between Hillary Clinton and third-party candidate Evan McMullin.
Roberts said ranked-choice voting, or instant runoff voting, changes the dynamic of how people vote. Many people, particularly younger people, are frustrated with the current system.
For instance, Roberts said, in the last presidential election, many people didn’t want to vote for Clinton or Trump, but worried that voting third party was essentially throwing away their vote.
“So instead of voting for somebody, people were voting against somebody,” Roberts said.
Concerns with implementation
Roberts said he’s happy that six cities have given themselves the option to use ranked-choice voting, but said nobody wants to be first.
“You’ve got to give tons of credit to these cities that are willing to take the lead on this,” Roberts said. “They’re going out on a limb and trying something new.”
For at least some of the cities opting into the program, however, it’s still not clear if they will actually use ranked-choice voting in the 2019 municipal elections.
After city staff in Lehi mocked-up the process for the City Council, the council decided to opt-in, though it was still worried about public opinion on the subject.
“So they passed the motion to move forward, with the intent to review again at the first meeting in March,” said Cameron Boyle, assistant city administrator for Lehi.
There are still questions about the process, Boyle said, including what technology is available to count ranked-choice ballots.
Payson took a similar position when its City Council voted to opt-in to the program. They’re still researching the topic, and depending on what they find out, may still use the opt-out option available through May.
“We’re pretty much willing to research it to a point where we feel more comfortable with it,” said Payson Mayor Bill Wright. “Then, if we aren’t comfortable we have the ability to opt out.”
Wright says overall, the concept of ranked-choice voting is intriguing, and he believes it gives people more flexibility and options if their first choice isn’t viable.
For now, Wright says the main concerns of implementing ranked-choice voting have to do with two things: Educating voters about how the new system would work, and the potential cost that could be incurred by the city.
Cities typically contract with the Utah County Clerk for municipal elections, and incoming Utah County Clerk Amelia Powers, who will be sworn into office Monday, said she plans to work diligently between now and the opt-out date to work out logistics.
“If I don’t have the confidence we can do it, I’ll let (cities) know,” Powers said. “We’re in an interesting place. Do I think it can be done? Yes. But I don’t know if we’ll be in the position to do it well yet.”
Utah County’s current elections contractor already has software built into its system to count ranked-choice votes, it would just be a matter of using it, Powers said.
The most challenging aspect will be voter education, Powers said, and will also likely be where most of the extra cost would come in. Powers plans to support legislative funding to cover some of those costs, and will know prior to the opt-out deadline whether that funding will be available for cities.
In the meantime, Powers said she will communicate with other cities and counties that have implemented ranked-choice voting to learn more about best practices.