State lawmakers advanced a proposal to cut Utah’s experiment with ranked choice voting short despite opposition from some cities and new survey data finding bipartisan support for keeping ranked choice voting an option for municipal elections.

The bill, HB290, sponsored by Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden, would change the repeal date for Utah’s voting methods pilot project from Jan. 1, 2026, to May 1, 2024. “Ranked Choice Voting Amendments” passed on a 7-4 vote out of the House Government Operations Committee on Tuesday after an extended debate between legislators, local officials and concerned citizens.

During the bill’s presentation, Hall said ranked choice voting had failed to bring about promised outcomes and hurt “voter confidence” in elections. Opponents of Hall’s proposal countered that some complications are to be expected from pilot programs and that the alternative electoral system has proven to be generally popular among those who try it.

“I think the intentions of putting ranked choice voting in place here in Utah were coming from a good place,” Hall said, referring to hopes that ranked choice voting could help mitigate divisive campaigns, save localities money on primary elections, ensure a winning majority and strengthen trust in elections.

“Those are noble things that they were trying to solve. However, it doesn’t appear to be having its intended effect of bringing confidence to elections that was promised,” Hall said.

When was ranked choice voting tried in Utah?

Ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, is an election process 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. 

In 2018, the Utah Legislature passed HB35, Municipal Alternate Voting Methods Pilot Project, which opened the door for cities and towns to try ranked choice voting in any of the upcoming four municipal election cycles.

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Beginning in 2019, two Utah cities, Payson and Vineyard, declared their intent to participate in the program. During the 2021 cycle, that number increased to 23 — though only nine cities ultimately conducted ranked choice elections, Hall said — and fell to 12 cities in 2023.

By advancing the original sunset date by a year and a half, Hall’s bill would prevent cities from choosing ranked choice voting in the 2025 municipal election cycle. Three election cycles have been enough, Hall said, to justify stopping the program early.

Hall pointed to voter confusion in Moab, recount troubles in Sandy and a cluttered candidate field in Lehi as evidence that the practical cons of ranked choice voting exceed the theoretical pros during a time when election confidence is already “at a low point.”

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

For some of Hall’s Republican colleagues, the simple fact that the pilot program has caused even a little confusion around elections is reason enough to hit “stop.”

“We’ve got data to show that there are enough problems to be concerned and that gathering one more year of data is probably just going to be one more year of problems that we’re going to gather data on,” said Rep. Michael Petersen, R-North Logan.

What do Utah cities think of ranked choice voting?

But for many of Utah’s municipalities, prohibiting experimentation with ranked choice voting, including additional efforts to educate voters on how it works, undermines the pilot program’s original intent.

“Our preference would be to finish the pilot program,” said Cameron Diehl, the executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns. “Give the cities the options, let them make that decision of what makes sense to them ... and then make the policy decision of whether or not to proceed with this option for cities in the future.”

Millcreek MayorJeff Silvestrini said the city has used ranked choice voting over the last two election cycles with great success, saving between $80,000-100,000 by skipping primary elections, which aren’t needed with the ranked choice system. He also said three citywide surveys conducted in 2021 and 2023 found that 70% of Millcreek residents favored ranked choice voting and understood how it worked.

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This feeling was shared by Salt Lake City Councilman Dan Dugan, who said the state’s largest trial with ranked choice voting was “positive across the board” for voters and city officials,” adding the process was “just as secure” as traditional elections.

Regardless of one’s feelings on ranked choice voting, lawmakers should respect the process of allowing cities to learn from their own experiences with ranked choice voting, according to Stan Rasmussen, the director of government affairs for the 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 told lawmakers.

Do Utahns like ranked choice voting?

Rasmussen referenced a recent Sutherland Institute survey that found 60% of Utah likely voters believe ranked choice voting should remain an option for cities and towns. The belief was shared by 55% of Republicans, 55% of Democrats and 71% of independent voters.

The survey was conducted by Y2 Analytics, between Jan. 20 and 31, 2024, among 657 Utah likely voters and has a margin of error of +/- 3.8 percentage points.

For Derek Monson, the chief growth officer at Sutherland Institute, some hiccups were inevitable in trying ranked choice voting for the first time. But these alone are not reason to abandon an experiment that could have long-term benefits to the state.

“Whenever you embark on a new program ... there’s going to be some learning that needs to happen, and training through experience and instruction,” Monson told the Deseret News. “That’s not a criticism of new programs; it’s a feature.”

Will voter confusion increase with ranked-choice voting?

While one Sandy survey, conducted after the city’s 2021 mayoral election, found that 60% disliked the system and said ranked choice voting should not be used in the future, Monson said other survey’s support Sutherland Institute’s findings.

A 2021 survey commissioned by Utah Ranked Choice Voting in conjunction with Y2 Analytics found that roughly half of respondents who voted in a ranked-choice election said the system should be used for more elections. Sutherland Institute’s survey similarly found that 55% of Utah voters would support ranked choice voting being continued for municipal elections.

“I think the proof in the pudding is after those initial experiences, do people want to continue with it or do they not,” Monson said.

According to Monson, who has written extensively on the benefits and drawbacks of ranked choice voting in the state, the argument that cities should be compelled to abandon ranked choice voting stands in stark contrast to the noncompulsory nature of the optional pilot program.

“I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t just eliminate the sunset date on the pilot program and allow it to be a permanent choice for cities,” Monson said. “Why couldn’t that continue indefinitely? It seems to me that it could.”