When Monica Zoltanski was elected mayor of Sandy, Utah, from a crowded field of eight candidates by only 21 votes in November 2021, the city had to hold a recount — not just because of the close vote, but also because of voter confusion.
Such were the fruits of Sandy’s experiment with ranked-choice voting.
Ranked-choice voting has been proposed as a way to solve the country’s “pernicious polarization,” with proponents saying it will provide voters with more nuanced choices and create healthier incentives for political campaigns.
But despite its recent popularity, some elected officials in jurisdictions where ranked-choice voting has been implemented worry it will make our political divide even worse as it upsets decades of precedent and leads to greater distrust in elections.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” said Zoltanski. “And when you’re the Guinea pig there’s a lot of sorting through those details in the first year, and I experienced them firsthand. And I’ll tell you, it was not fun.”
The Sandy City Council decided to enter the ranked-choice voting pilot program provided by the state of Utah in April 2021. Zoltanski, who was on the council at the time, did not approve of the decision, saying it was unwise to implement a new voting system after several council members had already launched mayoral campaigns and during a time of heightened tension surrounding election security.
Several months later, Zoltanski said, even the council members who had voted to opt in were having second thoughts.
What is ranked-choice voting?
Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, is an electoral system where voters are asked to rank candidates in order of preference on their ballot, instead of just selecting one.
If no candidate receives more than 50% of first-preference votes, an “instant runoff” is triggered, eliminating the candidate with the least votes and reallocating their votes to the voters’ second-preference. This process continues, with votes being reallocated based on second, third and fourth preferences, until a candidate emerges with a majority.
As of Dec. 2022, 63 jurisdictions in the U.S. had voted to adopt or have already implemented ranked-choice voting, according to FairVote, a nonpartisan organization that researches and advocates for ranked-choice voting reform. This includes two states — Maine and Alaska — two counties and 59 cities, affecting approximately 13 million voters.
Most jurisdictions that have adopted ranked-choice voting did so recently, with 47 of the 63 making the move since 2018. This includes the 23 Utah cities, including Sandy, that chose to use ranked-choice voting in their 2019 or 2021 city elections as part of a pilot program sanctioned by a 2018 state statute.
Ranked-choice voting made a big splash in the 2022 midterm elections, receiving approval by ballot initiative in Nevada for state and federal elections, Seattle for city primary elections and several other cities in Oregon, Colorado and across the country. It also played a role in electing the first Democrat to represent Alaska in Congress in half a century.
Election reform advocates look forward to 2024 when Nevada’s initiative will need to be approved by voters a second time and when they hope to see ranked-choice voting on the ballot in Arizona.
Promised benefits of ranked-choice voting
“The promise of ranked choice voting,” Zoltanski said, referring to a presentation lobbyists had given the city council in fall 2020, “was that it is cost effective, (has) fewer barriers to entry for candidates, that it’s to promote a more collegial campaign experience and that there’s more people who will support the ultimate victor than in a traditional election.”
These benefits are part of a long list touted by proponents of ranked-choice voting who frame the approach as an improvement on the current system in which voters select one candidate on their ballot and the candidate who receives the most votes wins and becomes the single representative of a voting district. In the U.S., this “first-past-the-post” electoral system is almost always paired with partisan primaries which usually see lower voter turn-out and sometimes exclude independent voters.
But electoral reform activists say the current system limits competition to two parties and produces ideologically extreme candidates. General dissatisfaction with both major political parties is cited as proof of the needed change, as well as America’s outlier status as one of the few established democracies still using a single-member district plurality system.
In a ranked-choice voting election, primaries can be eliminated altogether, resulting in a wide selection of general election candidates, or, as is more often the case, partisan primaries are replaced with an “open primary” in which a broad, multiparty field of candidates is narrowed down to just a handful using traditional “first-past-the-post” ballots before a ranked-choice general election is used to determine a winner.
Also, for a candidate to win in a crowded or close race where ranked-choice voting is used they need to appeal to supporters of other candidates in addition to their own narrow base. Advocates of ranked-choice voting say this constraint encourages civil campaigns in order to avoid alienating supporters of other candidates.
A 2022 survey of Republican primary voters in Virginia conducted by the Center for Campaign Innovation, a conservative non-profit research center, found that the use of ranked-choice voting in the state’s 10th congressional district resulted in much higher candidate favorability for the winner compared to a neighboring congressional district where a traditional plurality system was used. The ranked-choice voters were also much more likely to say the candidates ran a positive campaign.
Ranked-choice voting is also alleged to produce more moderate candidates. The Virginia GOP used ranked-choice voting in its 2021 primary. The resulting nominee was the business-friendly, rhetorically tame Glenn Youngkin, who became the first Republican to win a state-wide race in Virginia in over a decade. And in one of the country’s largest and most prominent tests of ranked-choice voting, the 2021 Democratic primary for New York City mayor elected Eric Adams, a former police officer who criticized his colleagues for their emphasis on “defund the police.”
But the promised benefits of ranked-choice voting in theory can be overshadowed by other concerns in practice.
Practical pitfalls of ranked-choice voting
According to Mayor Zoltanski, one difficulty with the implementation of ranked-choice voting in Sandy was the mere number of candidates.
“In the end it was very, very difficult, even for informed voters, engaged citizens, to get to know, vet and distinguish one candidate from the next,” Zoltanski said.
The city had chosen to forgo a primary — an option made possible by ranked-choice voting — for the cost savings. But after months of voter education efforts and extended general election campaigns, the savings had not materialized.
“We grossly underestimated the cost,” said Sherrie Swensen, the outgoing Salt Lake County Clerk who has contracted with cities to provide ballots and tabulation equipment during her three decades of service.
Swensen said the additional costs were incurred at the county level from the additional time and energy the clerk and staff had to devote to designing and providing instructions for ranked-choice voting ballots which were much longer and more complex than traditional ballots.
The cost of these new ballots went beyond tax dollars.
“I think the biggest challenge really was voters understanding what this new ballot format was and why it looked like this,” Swenson said. “The way I see it, for the people like those who called my office and said, ‘We don’t understand this’ and ‘I’m only going to pick one’, and then you have others who rank all the candidates, I’m not sure it’s a level playing field with voter understanding.”
In addition to causing confusion among voters, the ranked-choice format decreased voter turnout and resulted in ballots being discarded before the tabulation process was completed, Zoltanski said. Roughly 23,000 voters participated in the 2019 Sandy mayoral election. That fell to 21,000 in 2021. And only 17,000 of those voters had a say in the final round of ballot tabulation.
This disparity, between the total votes cast and the votes counted towards the final result, was caused by “ballot exhaustion”, or the elimination of ballots that do not mark a preference for each candidate during later rounds of tabulation. The threat of not having your vote counted pressures voters to rank every candidate, even if they aren’t sure how they feel about them, opponents say.
The complexity and obscurity of the ranked-choice process has engendered bitterness among some voters in places like Alaska, where the system was almost certainly responsible for sending the first Democrat to represent the red state in Congress in 50 years.
In its first test since approval by ballot initiative in 2020, the state’s ranked-choice system pitted two Republicans, Nick Begich Jr. and former governor, Sarah Palin, against Mary Peltola, a Democrat, in an Aug. 2022 special election.
Despite a sizeable majority of voters preferring Republican representation with their first-preference votes, and Begich beating both Palin and Peltola in hypothetical head-to-head competitions based on his showing in total preferences, the ranked-choice election was called for Peltola.
Though many political observers have weighed in to say this is how ranked-choice voting is supposed to work — favoring a less divisive, more moderate candidate — the unintuitive outcome has given ranked-choice voting a bad name among many conservative Alaskans and has only increased the level of distrust already held about elections.
“Tell me how that is both reasonable, fair and not something the people would be suspicious of when they vote for a Republican by numbers, but a Democrat wins” said Mike Shower, a Republican state senator representing the area north of Anchorage and a prominent supporter of the effort to put ranked-choice voting on the ballot again in 2024.
Voter distrust of the ranked-choice system is not helped by the fact that the information campaign behind the 2020 ballot initiative was largely funded by out-of-state, left-leaning donors, Shower said. And though ranked-choice voting may have helped Republicans win a majority in the Alaska House, its reputation seems to have been sullied by the top-of-ballot results.
“If we were to hold a vote tomorrow to repeal ranked-choice voting, I think it would win overwhelmingly,” Shower said.
Zoltanski shares some of Shower’s concerns. Ranked-choice voting is a big change for voters to swallow, especially when it produces unexpected outcomes. But her biggest worry is that it will add to already existing fear and tension over election fraud.
“I don’t think that the benefits of ranked-choice voting outweigh the benefits of predictability, stability, familiarity,” Zoltanski said. “To engage with voters and to encourage voter participation, people need to know what to expect, and when you change the rules from year to year, you change the election methodology, that just does not engender voter confidence, especially today when there’s a lot of discussion about process reliability and transparency.”
Following the 2021 mayoral elections, Sandy voters were asked about their experience with ranked-choice voting. Though 66% of respondents found the process easy, with 85% saying they ranked more than one candidate, 60% disliked the system and said ranked-choice voting should not be used in future Sandy City Municipal elections.
“It is an interesting, fascinating academic political science argument,” Zoltanski said. “But …the messages I received loud and clear from the people of Sandy was ‘Ranked Choice Voting? No thanks.’”