By Matt Vasilogambros
A roll of the dice decided a tied city council race in Vineyard, Utah, four years ago. So when the city had the opportunity to test a different way of voting in municipal elections last month, local officials embraced it.
“I thought, ‘What’s it going to hurt to try it?’” said Pamela Spencer, city clerk of the 10,000-person community on the shores of Utah Lake. She liked the results.
“The election went smooth,” said Spencer, who received just three phone calls from confused voters during the monthlong vote-by-mail period. “I think it’ll catch on.”
Last year, Utah lawmakers approved a statewide pilot program for ranked-choice voting in municipal elections, welcoming any city that wants to participate. The system allows voters to rank candidates by preference in the hopes of preventing costly runoff elections in crowded races.
With its pilot program running through 2026, Utah joins 15 cities and the state of Maine in implementing ranked-choice voting. Most of those jurisdictions, such as Berkeley, California, and Takoma Park, Maryland, are politically progressive. In November, voters in New York City approved a ballot measure allowing the voting system in primaries and special elections of certain municipal elections starting in 2021.
With conservative Utah giving the system a strong look, it could pave the way for other Republican-leaning states and municipalities to adopt it, said Matthew Burbank, a professor of political science at the University of Utah.
“It’s not the Bay Area, it’s not Maine,” he said. “If it’s going to come about in places like Montana and Kansas, it’s going to be because places like Utah say, ‘It works, it saves costs and gets better results out of it.’”
Republican state Rep. Marc Roberts, who authored the pilot program legislation, told Stateline that he recently sent letters outlining his support of ranked-choice voting to interested Republican lawmakers in Tennessee and Washington state in his continuing effort to reach conservative policymakers in other states.
Still, Republican-sponsored legislation to bring ranked voting to other conservative states failed to gain traction this year. Legislation in Wyoming made it to a full Senate vote, where it was resoundingly defeated with just two Republican supporting votes. The bill in Missouri never made it out of committee.
Jason McDaniel, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University, said highly educated, progressive voters in urban areas are most likely to embrace election changes such as ranked-choice voting. The system also may be especially appealing to Democrats because ideological differences among them often lead to crowded primaries.
McDaniel said Republicans are more likely to view elections through an “integrity” prism, and therefore are more focused on voter ID laws and purging registration rolls.
However, McDaniel said, “there’s nothing inherently liberal or progressive about ranked-choice voting,” and conservatives may come to embrace it because it saves money on runoff elections.
While officials said the first test of the voting system in the Beehive State went off without a major hitch and saved money by preventing runoff elections, only two small cities in north central Utah tried it. Had more cities participated, it would have been a better test of the system, said Burbank, who suspects some cities were waiting to see others try it first.
And many Utah election officials and lawmakers remain strongly opposed, citing the need for different equipment, and the potential for voter confusion and longer ballots.
The biggest test is likely to happen in 2021, when Provo, the third-largest city in Utah with more than 116,000 residents, uses it for its municipal elections.
In ranked-choice elections, voters rank candidates from their first to their last choice. If nobody gets 50% of the first-choice votes, an instant runoff kicks in. The candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is kicked out, and his or her votes are reallocated to the candidates named second on those ballots. The process repeats until one candidate passes the majority threshold. Ranked-choice voting requires a different ballot design and sometimes new equipment, depending on the vendor.
In Payson, a city of nearly 20,000, Recorder Kim Holindrake felt ranked-choice voting brought a more positive atmosphere to campaigning during the city council race. Candidates, she said, often would ask voters to rank them second if the voter already had a top choice, avoiding personal attacks on rivals.
Holindrake also received just a few calls from confused voters during the voting process. The state appropriated thousands of dollars to educate voters on the system, which helped produce online videos, send explainer mailers to every voter and hang posters and banners in public spaces and workplaces.
This helped, she said, though she wished the information got to voters sooner than two months before the election. Still, she’s hopeful more cities will sign on.
“Now that two cities have done it in Utah, they have a base to work from,” she said. “It’ll be better for other communities to jump in and do ranked-choice voting.”
But the new system of voting isn’t catching on in the state just yet.
Leading up to November, three other Utah cities had announced they were interested in testing ranked-choice voting but backed out several months ahead of the election. Cottonwood Heights and Lehi City dropped out because Salt Lake County, which runs their elections, did not have the equipment it needed.
On top of that, Sherrie Swensen, the Salt Lake County clerk, has major concerns about the system, including voter confusion. During the 2016 presidential election, the county had more than 10,000 ballots with errors that needed to be adjudicated by election judges, she said. Adding a new system requiring voters to rank multiple candidates, she said, would open the door to even more errors.
Swensen also fears that expanding ranked-choice voting to races beyond municipal elections could lead to the demise of voting by mail in the state. The current ballot in Salt Lake County is one or two pages, depending on the election. If ranked-choice voting were used for statewide races, she thinks the ballot could expand to four or five pages, which increases costs and makes voting by mail financially ineffective.
“That is absolutely appalling to me,” she said. “We’ve made it so easy and convenient for people to vote. I don’t want to lose that. It’s been a long, hard battle to get there. The benefits of that far supersede ranked-choice voting.”
The county is buying new voting equipment ahead of 2021. When that happens, Swensen said, she will reconsider the program.
West Jordan, another city that considered signing onto the program, could have used the same Utah County election equipment that Payson and Vineyard used. But officials backed out earlier this year, saying it would be too much to juggle along with a pivotal mayoral race and a ballot question that reshaped the city government’s executive power structure.
“We were in a new territory and this was too much to do in one election,” said Jamie Brooks, interim city clerk. “We felt a couple other small cities should do it and see how it goes.”
The city’s incoming mayor, Dirk Burton, told Stateline that he is interested in ranked-choice voting but hasn’t yet made up his mind.
Some state lawmakers, who would have to approve any expansion of the voting system to include partisan state races, oppose the change.
“It’s the worst idea ever,” said Republican state Sen. Daniel Thatcher, who favors runoffs. “These little cities that want to try this experiment — congrats, I hope you have a good time. But at the end of the day, that’s not the state legislature, that’s not the state governor.
“I’m not willing to speed up the outcome if it means diluting or diminishing the process.”
The pilot program may soon alleviate some of those concerns among cities, lawmakers and voters, said former Democratic state Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, who was one of the strongest proponents of adopting the system when she served in the Utah state House until last year.
“It’s a way to test things out,” she said. “It’s not mandatory. They don’t feel like you’re forcing it down their throats. It lets them see how it works. This has to come from voters that this is something that they want.”
Utah voters who have tried the new system seem to like it, said Amelia Powers Gardner, the Utah County clerk and auditor who ran the Payson and Vineyard elections.
Her office is surveying voters who tried ranked voting, and the results so far are overwhelming: More than two-thirds are in favor. Additionally, of the 200 respondents, nearly 60% want to expand the system to gubernatorial and congressional races.
Gardner views ranked voting as a bipartisan way to make elections less expensive, which appeals to her and her fellow fiscally conservative constituents. Her county spent half as much on elections this year by avoiding runoffs, she said. She’s more than happy to be a conservative evangelist for ranked voting.
“Government should be as efficient as possible, so it spends as little taxpayer dollars as possible,” she said. “I saw ranked-choice voting as doing that.”