SALT LAKE CITY — Primary elections in Utah could change significantly as state lawmakers consider ways to deal with concerns about winners advancing to the general election ballot with less than a majority of the vote.
Work on what's being called a plurality issue is just getting underway by members of the Legislature's Government Operations Interim Committee, who are looking to come up with a bill for the 2020 Legislature.
Of course, lawmakers also have the option of joining 35 other states across the country that don't address what happens when more than two candidates are on a primary ballot and none of them receive over 50 percent of the vote.
"The idea of plurality seems concerning," Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, the co-chairman of the committee, said at a recent meeting. "I was very concerned about this issue, but so far, I haven't been able to find a case of that occurring."
Thatcher said nonpartisan municipal elections that advance the top two vote-getters to a general election ballot have been conducted in Utah for decades, apparently without plurality being seen as a problem.
But with the passage of a controversial election law still known as SB54 in 2014, plurality became a possibility in partisan primary elections because it created an alternative path to the ballot.
Instead of political party delegates either selecting their nominees outright or sending two candidates to a primary, SB54 permits candidates to gather voter signatures for a guaranteed place on the ballot.
There are four other states that have a caucus and convention system for nominating candidates as well as an alternative way to access a primary ballot: New Mexico, Colorado, North Dakota and Connecticut.
None of those states have laws dealing with plurality, according to legislative staff.
Of those states that do have plurality laws, 10 call for a runoff election when no candidate gets a majority of the vote; four advance the top two candidates to a general election regardless of party; and one, Maine, has ranked-choice voting.
Voters in a ranked-choice system rank all the candidates on a ballot in order of preference. If the first choice of the most voters doesn't have a majority, the rankings are used to adjust the results until someone reaches more than 50 percent.
Since SB54 became law, legislators have proposed a variety of fixes, ranging from letting political parties pick the nominee to holding a runoff election to ranked-choice voting.
Only ranked-choice voting has been approved by the Legislature, but as a pilot project. Just two Utah County communities, Payson and Vineyard, are participating in the pilot project in upcoming municipal elections.
Thatcher made it clear he has little interest in pursuing ranked-choice voting.
"I am completely and totally biased and I own that," he said, describing how when ranked-choice voting was used to select nominees in the 2004 governor's race by the Utah Republican Party, it changed how candidates campaigned.
Instead of attempting to win in the crowded field outright, Thatcher said candidates instead ran for second place, trying to "not polarize" the GOP delegates by taking strong stances.
But Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Salem, the sponsor of the 2018 ranked-choice voting bill and a member of the committee, defended what he said might be more accurately labeled instant runoff voting.
Roberts acknowledged there are challenges at the statewide level, including whether voters will understand how it works. He said additional vote tabulations could slow results, especially if multiple counties are involved.
Still, he said, "It's no different than having a runoff. You just do it all at once."
Thatcher said going forward, the committee will look at holding a second election if there's no majority winner in a primary and advancing the top two candidates from a ballot that includes candidates from all political parties.
A runoff election could cost as much as $3 million in a statewide race and would require compressing the election cycle, possibly moving the June primary in non-municipal election years to May.
What's known as a "jungle" or top-two primary could result in some savings, because there would be a single ballot rather than separate ballots for every political party that has multiple nominees.
While those are the choices the committee will consider, proposing no action remains an option.
Weber County Clerk/Auditor Ricky Hatch suggested no fix is needed.
"We're referees. The plurality for us, it's not an issue because we report the results and let the policymakers make the decisions on that. We don't see it as real impediment," Hatch said. "We don't see that as a huge issue."
Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, offered a similar perspective.
"I'm just not sure I see some grand difference between the primary election results and the general election results where we seem to be OK with plurality," because there are often more than two political parties on the ballot, Brammer said.
Changing the law to ensure primary candidates win by a majority may not be necessary, he said.
"I'm not sure I see the need," Brammer said. "Maybe there's some red-blooded American desire to have someone above 50 percent."