clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Guest opinion: Crowded primaries show the need for ranked-choice voting


As Super Tuesday approaches and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders is accumulating a lead over his rivals, we see yet again why ranked-choice voting is such an urgent need for preserving the voice of the people in our elections.

In Iowa, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg tied for first, with each receiving only 26% of the vote. In New Hampshire, Sanders emerged victorious with only 26% of the vote. And now with Nevada’s caucus results still trickling in, Sanders is the clear winner, but still with less than 50% of the vote (sitting at 46%). These early results are analogous to the results of the 2016 Republican presidential primary, where then-candidate Donald Trump received 24% of the vote in Iowa, 35% in New Hampshire and 32% in South Carolina. By the end of primary voting, Trump won the nomination with just under 45% of the all primary votes — meaning more people voted against him than for him.

In both of these primaries, a very broad field of candidates results in votes split so extensively that early winners emerge with very little total support. Utah will likely be looking at this very issue in our upcoming Republican gubernatorial primary, where several high-profile candidates will be on the final primary ballot. In a state as “red” as Utah, the Republican primary winner will almost surely become the new governor, and they might reach that seat by receiving less than 30% of the total primary votes.

In instances like these, it is easy to become frustrated by the ultimate voting choices that we receive — especially when fields begin with so many qualified and quality candidates. Plurality results like these do not create a government that is run by the voice of the people, but rather by the voice of the largest minority.

Instead of trying to stamp out contenders from a race early on, we can reap the benefit of a wide field of candidates while still ultimately honoring the majority of an electorate, by implementing ranked-choice voting — sometimes also referred to as an instant runoff. This process allows voters to rank their candidate by preference, rather than only marking one. If no single candidate receives a majority of the first-choice votes, the candidate with the least number of first-choice votes is dropped from the ballot and their votes are assigned to those voters’ second-choice picks. The process continues until one candidate receives a majority of the votes.

Many of the electoral stresses and problems that we feel trapped with could be solved with ranked-choice voting. Many of us feel like we have to choose between “the lesser of two evils” on a general election ballot, and like voting for anyone other than a major party candidate “helps” a candidate you like even less.

Ranked-choice voting eliminates the “spoiler effect” of third-party or independent candidates, expanding our choices and removing the fear of casting a vote for someone we actually believe to be the best option. Ranked-choice voting has been shown to reduce the time that candidates spend attacking one another, and voters in these elections show significantly higher satisfaction with the conduct of the campaigns. Ranked-choice voting can also reduce costs for races that require a runoff election, or for those cities that require a primary election for nonpartisan seats like a city council.

Holding tight to plurality elections (rather than majority) is giving us fewer options and allowing small groups of voters to dictate the ultimate representatives of the majority.

Luckily, Utah has already made some small steps in support of ranked-choice voting, although progress has been slow and has not been without resistance. In 2018, the state Legislature passed a law allowing cities to pilot the option, and both Payson and Vineyard used ranked-choice voting successfully for city council races in 2019. Afterward, Pamela Spencer, the city recorder/clerk in Vineyard, reported receiving just three phone calls from confused voters during the monthlong vote-by-mail period, and said “I think it’ll catch on.” Several cities in Salt Lake County opted to try ranked-choice voting but had to back out because Salt Lake County’s equipment is not able to administer it — though federal funding was issued to Utah in 2018 for updating such equipment.

Adjusting the way elections work is something that many representatives are reluctant to take on, so I encourage you to learn more about ranked-choice voting if you need to, and then reach out to your city and state representatives to express your support and request greater movement on ranked-choice voting. We don’t have to silently accept the status quo that is leaving so many of us feeling hopeless and helpless, we can work for simple changes like this that can open the door to a better future.

Shelly Cluff lives in Riverton with her husband and three young children. She volunteers on many local campaigns and is believes strongly in helping others to become informed and engaged in the civic process.