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Cities near deadline to decide on use of ranked-choice voting

By Rob Nielsen - | Apr 18, 2023

BEN DORGER, Standard-Examiner file photo

Ludwig Possie votes in the Utah presidential primary election on Tuesday, March 3, 2020, at Union Station in downtown Ogden.

Several Utah cities are set to employ ranked-choice voting, also called RCV, in municipal elections as part of a state pilot program.

Kelleen Potter, executive director of the nonprofit Utah Ranked Choice Voting, which helps educate the public about RCV, explained to the Standard-Examiner how the voting method works.

“Ranked-choice voting is essentially when, instead of just getting to choose one candidate in a race, you get to rank all of the candidates,” she said. “The Legislature approved a pilot program to try it out in municipal elections. So cities that have more than two candidates for a race, instead of having a primary election, you go straight to the general election and the candidates are ranked on there. When the counting happens, they count all of the first-choice votes, and then, if nobody has over 50%, you drop the lowest one and their second-choice votes are applied to the candidates. Then you keep going round by round until someone gets a majority.”

The pilot program was first passed in 2018 and has only been able to be applied to municipal elections. Cities also have to apply each cycle and the deadline to declare a municipal election will use RCV is May 1.

According to a press release from Utah Ranked Choice Voting, as of Tuesday, 10 cities across the state have committed to using RCV in upcoming municipal elections this year. This includes the cities of Heber, Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake, Vineyard, Payson, Millcreek, Midvale, Genola, Kearns and Magna. Others, such as Cottonwood Heights and Riverton, were set to decide whether to use it during their respective board meetings Tuesday evening. A handful of other cities — Lehi, Charleston, Woodland Hills, Elk Ridge and Goshen — have discussed the idea but have not made a decision yet.

Notably, there are no Weber County cities on the list.

Weber County Clerk/Auditor Ricky Hatch told the Standard-Examiner that he received only a couple of light inquiries from area municipalities.

“None of them have expressed interest,” he said. “I’ve had a couple of questions asking, ‘Tell us what your thoughts are about ranked-choice voting? If we were to do ranked-choice voting, what would that entail? What do you feel are the benefits and drawbacks of ranked-choice voting.’ Cities have asked about that but none have said, ‘Hey, we’re interested in doing that. Let’s talk.'”

He said an interested city wouldn’t have much to do, legally, to alter their election style — but there would be a lot of other legwork to do.

“The only official process that they would have to do is make a declaration with the lieutenant governor’s office,” he said. “The more important thing they would need to do is figure out how they’re going to educate voters and administer the election in a manner that promotes confidence among voters and candidates. That’s a much tougher lift and higher bar for them to complete.”

Potter said, in the past, there have been as many as 23 cities using RCV in elections, but that politics have caused the number to vary.

“It’s been a little different environment, politically,” she said. “The national Republican Party has decided they don’t like it, even though it was the party that brought it to Utah, and they used it in the conventions and people loved it because it saved hours and hours. Somehow, during the last cycle, there’s a group that’s come up that doesn’t like it, so it’s been a little challenging with the politics of it this year.”

Still, she said RCV has proven popular among voters who have been able to use it.

“We did a survey after the (2021) election with Y2K Analytics,” she said. “People who voted really liked it. In every city, it was over 50% of the people. The average, statewide, this last time was in the 80s. … Usually, once people use ranked-choice voting, they like it, at least more than the ones who have never tried it.”

Potter said, for future elections, the group intends to get on the education element earlier.

“We had several cities this year that said they want to do it next time but they didn’t get enough lead up to do what they feel like was enough education and informing of the citizens,” she said. “We hope to get an early start on some of those after the November election and just start the conversation hoping to spread it to other cities.”

She added that RCV could grow in the state in the future.

“There have been legislators in the past who sponsored bills to use this in partisan primaries,” she said. “If we have this on the partisan primaries, it would provide a candidate who got over 50%. Right now we’re not pushing that because we were waiting to see how the political environment turns out. We’ll see what happens in the future.”


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