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Ranked-choice voting makes elections faster and cheaper

The Utah County clerk and auditor argues for widespread implementation of this innovative electoral process

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Caitlin Mullen organizes primary ballots at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 2, 2020.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

As the Utah County clerk and auditor, I’m proud to come to work every day excited to make a difference for the people of my county. I’m always on the lookout for innovative ideas because we should be in the business of solving problems, making government more efficient and saving taxpayers money.

That’s why in 2019 I embraced the opportunity to work with Payson and Vineyard to implement faster, cheaper and better elections with ranked-choice voting. My staff and I did what it took to be trailblazers, and were thrilled with our success. Payson and Vineyard have already signed up to use ranked-choice voting again this fall, and a growing number of Utah County cities will join them. I’m ready to help — because that’s my job.

Across Utah in 2021, municipalities will be required by state law to conduct their elections by mail, just like other years. This means cities will have to print and mail ballots to every active voter for both the August primary and November general elections. Given the cost and time savings, improved decorum and improved voter experience, I urge cities across the state to consider giving ranked-choice voting a try this year.

First, ranked-choice voting saves money and time. Keep in mind that city elections are nonpartisan, so cities do not have primaries to nominate candidates like political parties do. Instead, the sole purpose of city primaries is to narrow the field of interested candidates before a second round of elections in November. Ranked-choice voting gives voters the ability to get the job done in one election, ultimately faster and less expensive.

This would shorten the campaign period thereby lowering the burden of running for office. Political signs will only cover the community during one season. Parents running for office don’t have to take time off from work or leave their families for multiple months. Cities will pay half as much because they have one election and not two. It should be an election administrator’s dream to save time and money.

Second, ranked-choice voting is better. Candidates are often more cordial to each other and focus on issues more than personality. In ranked-choice voting elections, there is an incentive to highlight areas of overlap and agreement as much as there is incentive to highlight differences because there is a benefit to gaining a voter’s second-choice vote. Additionally, voters become more invested in learning about the candidates and what they have to say, as the role of voting is not to merely pick one candidate, but to compare all the candidates and arrange them into a preference list.

In traditional plurality elections, if your first choice doesn’t win, you tend to feel like the winner was someone you opposed and therefore not someone you support going forward. But, if the winner was someone you ranked, then you may feel like one of the candidates you supported won. This outcome changes your attitude as a voter toward the eventual winning official who later represents you in local government. This produces better and more collaborative relationships between constituents and local officials.

Utah Republicans and Democrats have been using ranked-choice voting off and on in their caucuses and conventions for several years with success. Last year, both parties used ranked-choice voting at their state conventions. A survey afterward by the Utah Republican Party showed delegates wanting to continue using ranked-choice voting by a 3 to 1 margin.

I also urge my fellow election officials to embrace innovation. We earn our citizens’ trust when we are clear we’re all about making government work. Cities stand to benefit from using ranked-choice voting in 2021, and I hope many counties will join me in offering this improved service to those cities. The Legislature has given cities options if a county is unable to offer ranked-choice voting to instead work with a county that does. Our county is willing to help any county or city utilize ranked-choice voting in order to make municipal elections better, faster and less expensive.

Amelia Powers Gardner is the Utah County clerk and auditor. She has received national recognition for leading election reforms and innovations. She is the first clerk in the nation to implement mobile voting for overseas and disabled voters and to offer end-to-end automated marriage licenses. Gardner was featured as one of Government Technology’s Top 25 Doers, Dreamers & Drivers for 2020.