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Utah lawmakers may end ranked choice voting pilot program early

Critics cite confusion and ‘voter confidence,’ but proponents urge lawmakers to let experiment finish for wholistic data

By Katie McKellar - Utah News Dispatch | Feb 15, 2024

Spenser Heaps, Utah News Dispatch

Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden, is pictured in the House Chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024.

A bill to end Utah’s experiment with ranked choice voting early is gaining traction in the Utah Legislature.

With HB290, Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden, wants to move up the date on which Utah’s ranked choice voting pilot project ends, from Jan. 1, 2026, to May 1 of this year.

Hall argues ranked choice voting has caused confusion and complaints in some recent city elections. She pointed to Moab, Lehi and Sandy — cities that tried out ranked choice voting and ran into snags.

For Moab, it was confusion. For Lehi, a candidate dropped out during the ballot counting phase, prompting a discussion on how to finalize results.

In Sandy, a crowded race of eight mayoral candidates came to a hectic conclusion after the Sandy City Council initially refused to certify results, disagreeing with the county over the recount process. Sandy city officials then sent a letter calling on the state to clarify the process or eliminate ranked choice voting as an option.

Image supplied, Sutherland Institute

Fact sheet showing early results from a Sutherland Institute/Y2 Analytics survey of 657 likely Utah voters from Jan. 24 to Jan. 31, 2024.

“For me and for my constituents, this is about voter confidence,” Hall said.

The House Government Operations Committee on Tuesday voted 7-4 to advance the bill to the House floor.

The vote came despite concerns that lawmakers haven’t yet given the pilot project its due time. Ending it early, they worry, would prevent a full picture of data about the pros and cons of ranked choice voting to take shape.

“It’s something that’s well-liked in my community,” said Rep. Douglas Welton, R-Payson, noting some cities have embraced ranked choice voting, while others have opted not to give it a try. “But they’ve had the choice … I think it would be tragic to cut the trial short.”

What is ranked choice voting?

Ranked choice voting is an alternative voting method for more than two candidates in which voters rank their preferred candidates. Rather than narrowing the field of candidates in a primary down to two candidates for the general election, all candidates in a ranked choice voting election participate in a general election.

In a ranked choice voting election, if one candidate doesn’t claim a majority of the vote in the first round of voting, the candidate with the lowest votes is eliminated. If a voter’s first-choice candidate is eliminated, then the voter’s second-choice candidate is included in the second round of votes. The vote counting process continues until one candidate claims a majority of votes to win the election.

In 2018, the Utah Legislature passed HB35, to pilot ranked choice voting for eight years, allowing cities to choose whether to opt into the program or not.

The debate

Hall said the “intention” with Utah’s ranked choice voting pilot program — meant to help reduce “divisive politics,” find a cheaper alternative and bolster “confidence” in elections — were “noble things.”

“However, it doesn’t appear to have this intended effect,” Hall said.

Hall pointed to the problems in Sandy, as well as comments from county clerks that ranked choice voting can be more complex to administer.

“The implementation of rank choice voting has been problematic for our county clerks who say that the complexities rank choice voting brings to the system — including public education, ballot layout, extra costs for software and marketing, tabulation and auditing — add a degree of complexity that they feel outweighs any potential benefits,” Hall said.

“I know there’s a couple of cities who like it, and that’s great,” Hall said, but she argued fewer cities are opting in to the program compared to past years and voter turnout has declined, so the state should end it early.

Davis County Clerk Brian McKenzie said county clerks do have some concerns about ranked choice voting because of its “complexity” in tabulating votes. However, he said they also acknowledge it can save cities money by letting them avoid primaries. Because it’s a municipal matter, county clerks have taken a neutral position on the bill, he said.

However, Utah County Clerk Aaron Davidson said Lehi’s voter turnout dropped from 30% in 2021 to 20% in 2023. He mused that it was because of confusion.

“Just anecdotally, my chief deputy said that his parents, when they got the ballot and saw it was ranked choice voting, they threw it in the trash,” Davidson said. “They just didn’t like it, they didn’t understand it, and so they just didn’t vote.”

But Kelleen Potter, executive director of Utah Ranked Choice Voting Utah, pushed back on claims that voter turnout has gone down amid ranked choice voting. She noted voter turnout can be “complicated,” and that turnout can spike during high profile elections, such as a mayoral race, and decrease when there aren’t as many hotly contested races.

“I would encourage you to give it one more year like you’d planned in the beginning and allow all of this data to be brought forth in an interim meeting, perhaps, so that you would be able to analyze and look at the data and see what is really happening in these elections,” Potter said.

Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini also spoke against the bill, noting Millcreek has used ranked choice voting in its last two municipal elections. He said the city has conducted three surveys on residents’ opinions of ranked choice voting, and in “all three of those surveys, 70% of Millcreek residents” said they favored and understood ranked choice voting.

Silvestrini said the city saved between $80,000 and $100,000 by not having a primary election.

“It merits finishing the pilot program,” Silvestrini said, arguing the Legislature should let cities decide for themselves. “I think it does promote a more civil campaign.”

Salt Lake City Councilmember Dan Dugan, who was elected in a ranked choice voting election, spoke against the bill, saying Salt Lake City should be able to opt into the program like it has in the past.

“The elections were just as secure as traditional elections,” Dugan said, arguing Salt Lake City residents liked the process. “After the first round, (ranked choice ballots) became easier to use and the voters were also very well informed about it.”

“I see no reason” to end the pilot program early and take that choice away from cities, Dugan said.

‘For the process’

Stan Rasmussen, vice president of the Sutherland Institute, said his group is neither for or against ranked choice voting, “but we are for the process.”

He cited a fact sheet showing early results from a recent survey commissioned by the Sutherland Institute and conducted by the firm Y2 Analytics that showed a majority — 60% — of likely Utah voters said they think ranked choice voting should remain an option for cities and towns in Utah.

That survey was of 657 likely Utah voters from Jan. 24 to Jan. 31. Its data were weighted to reflect demographics of likely voters in the state’s 2024 general election with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points, according to Sutherland Institute.

“We encourage you to consider that it is sound policy to allow the pilot program to be completed, rather than repealing it, so it can generate additional insights about the pros and cons of (ranked choice voting),” Rasmussen said, noting the “purpose of the program is to allow Utahns and (lawmakers) to gain experience with ranked choice voting and examine the information it produces to gain a clearer picture of the benefits and drawbacks.”

Representatives from the Utah League of Cities and Towns and the League of Women Voters of Utah also asked lawmakers to let the test run its course.

Katherine Bailey, president of the League of Women Voters of Utah, said lawmakers have heard “a lot of anecdotes and, frankly, some guessing about what might happen and what might not.”

She urged lawmakers to not stop a pilot program. “You do not have the full data. … Give it the full pilot program time and call it good then.”

Rep. Jen Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, said Hall wasn’t an elected lawmaker when the Utah Legislature approved the ranked choice voting program, and “it was the intent of (the Legislature) to give this pilot a chance.”

“The thumb is on the scale on this, and to be so disrespectful of the legislative intent of this body I think is disingenuous and misguided,” Dailey-Provost said.

“The whole point of a pilot is to run the program, figure out what works, what citizens like and what citizens don’t like, and be given the opportunity to address those problems,” she said.

Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, called Dailey-Provost’s comments “really offensive,” noting he was a lawmaker when the pilot program was first approved, but that shouldn’t preclude another legislator from running a bill.

“I voted to try out this pilot program,” Brammer said, “and now I’m voting to get rid of it because frankly I don’t think it’s been working well.”

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.


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