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Jay Evensen: How many votes do you need to be considered a winner?

John Curtis smiles at the delegates while they applaud his time as mayor during his speech while campaigning for the vote of Republican 3rd District Delegates on the stage at Timpview High School Provo on Saturday, June 17, 2017.
John Curtis smiles at the delegates while they applaud his time as mayor during his speech while campaigning for the vote of Republican 3rd District Delegates on the stage at Timpview High School Provo on Saturday, June 17, 2017.
Kelsey Brunner, Deseret News


John Curtis won the Republican primary for the state’s 3rd Congressional District, a three-way race, with 43.28 percent of the vote. He is the party’s candidate in next months’ general election, but does his inability to get a clear majority of votes mean he has less than total support from members of his party?

My guess is many people would say no. The winner of a substantial plurality is just as legitimate as the winner of a majority.

But would we feel the same about Curtis if he had won with 35 percent? How about 20 percent? At what point does a victory signal something less than the will of the people?

These questions could become much more relevant in Utah soon as voters face ballot initiatives that, if successful, could increase the number of names we see on future primary ballots.

Don’t think there aren’t people out there who believe they have the answers.

Earlier this week I met with state Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City. Last year she sponsored a bill that would have instituted something called ranked-choice voting in certain partisan Utah races.

Simply put, this would have given voters the option to rank multiple candidates by their order of preference. In a three-way race, for instance, you would indicate which candidate is your first, second and third choice.

If no candidate receives a clear majority, the one with the fewest first-choice votes would be eliminated, with his or her second-choice votes being distributed. When those votes are tallied, one of the two remaining candidates would have more than 50 percent of the vote.

The bill had a long list of Republican and Democrat co-sponsors. It sailed through the House on a 59-12 vote before failing in the Senate.

Chavez-Houck said the bill will return in the 2018 legislative session, but it will be narrowly focused on nonpartisan municipal races, and its lead sponsor will be Marc Roberts, R-Salem.

Utah isn’t the only state looking at this. Voters in Maine decided last year to use this method for all except municipal and presidential elections. But supporters here tell me Utah would have been a perfect place to use this for last year’s presidential election.

The argument goes like this: A lot of people weren’t happy with the two main candidates but were afraid to vote for Evan McMullin or some other third-party person because it felt like wasting a vote. If they could have voted for a third party while still marking either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton a second choice, their worries would have eased.

I’m not so sure I buy that argument, but ranked-choice supporters do have a different argument that resonates. Their method would make election season less nasty and uncivil.

Instead of insulting opponents and their supporters with wild accusations, candidates would focus more on convincing those people to include them as at least a second choice. We might even get back to the days of hearing the phrase, “My worthy opponent. …”

The plan has its detractors. Some say it would be too confusing, and that might reduce turnout. That’s a big concern in Utah, where a new Utah Foundation analysis just determined the state finished a dismal 39th nationally in turnout last fall.

Supporters, not surprisingly, say it would have the exact opposite effect.

In general, democracy can be a maddeningly imperfect method for choosing leaders. As Winston Churchill famously told the House of Commons in 1947, it is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

Donald Trump’s critics are quick to remind Americans he received only 46 percent of the popular vote last year. And while that was unique because of the Electoral College, he joins a long line of presidents who got less than 50 percent, including Bill Clinton both times he won and John Quincy Adams, who got 31 percent in 1824.

Leaders of the Count My Vote initiative, who recently relaunched their bid to take away the nominating power of political convention caucuses, reportedly have set a 35 percent threshold to avoid a runoff election.

Is that a good cutoff for crowning someone the people’s choice?

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at For more content, visit his website,