If you heard anything at all about the recently completed Democratic mayoral primary election in New York City, which used a ranked choice voting method, chances are it was negative.
Election workers screwed up and forgot to delete test ballots from the system, which meant early returns were wrong. That, in turn, meant that people (and candidates) freaked out.
Bedlam in Gotham! Republicans pounced! Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said it meant ranked choice voting was “a corrupt scam!” Holy skyscrapers, Batman!
Sounds ominous for the Beehive State, where 23 municipalities have signed up to do ranked choice voting this fall, doesn’t it?
Should we be scared?
Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. In races with more than two candidates, if no one gets more than 50% of the first-place votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated and all of his or her second-place, third-place, etc., votes are distributed among those who are left. The process continues until someone passes the 50% threshold.
Some among us would like to see Utah adopt this for all elections. Maine already does so.
As a journalist who once lived and reported in Manhattan, I can attest that controversies between the Hudson and East rivers can at times create explosions louder than the sum of their parts.
Or, as Julie Fullmer, the mayor of Vineyard, in Utah County, eloquently told Politico.com recently, “It’s difficult to compare ourselves to New York.”
Her honor wasn’t exactly going out on a limb with that one, but the mayor of Vineyard, population about 7,000 and change, does have one thing in common with the Big Apple. Vineyard and Payson are the only two Utah cities that have used ranked choice voting in elections.
They reported few, if any, problems.
Look beyond the Board of Elections’ rookie mistake and New Yorkers feel much the same.
CBS New York said a poll shortly after the election showed about 75% of voters want to use ranked choice voting again, and 83% ranked more than one candidate on their ballots. A majority found the ballot easy to use.
“The issues in New York have less to do with ranked choice voting and more to do with human error,” Utah’s director of elections, Justin Lee, told me.
That was echoed by Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen, herself not the biggest fan of the ranked choice method. She will be front-and-center this fall as her office counts ballots in 10 of the 23 jurisdictions that will be using this method in Utah.
That said, here are some aspects about this method worth considering.
One is that, despite the promises of ranked choice voting advocates, the process won’t necessarily make campaigns less nasty right away. That may be because candidates are slow to catch on. Because voters can rank candidates, a good strategy would be to play nice or form quasi-alliances with rivals, hoping for second-place votes.
Near the end of the race in New York, candidate Kathryn Garcia began to campaign with candidate Andrew Yang, apparently for this reason.
Another is that front-runner candidates will generally dislike the process. Supporters of the eventual winner, Eric Adams, reportedly were ready to challenge the outcome if he had lost. Front-runners have the most to lose, especially if all the other candidates’ second-place votes give someone else the victory.
Third, in Utah, officials worry that if ranked choice voting eventually extends to all elections, it would hurt the state’s successful vote-by-mail experience. That’s because a long list of candidates in various elections could make the ballots several pages long.
Both Lee and Swensen told me this could make elections costly and confusing. Lee said people might misplace pages of their ballots. Husbands and wives might accidentally swap pages.
Fourth, people who make mistakes might make a mess of their ballots, striking out choices and renumbering preferences. This would lead to more ballots being adjudicated and counted by hand.
Fifth, it takes a long time to get results. The New York primary took two weeks to decide.
Beyond all this, ranked choice voting seems perfectly suited to municipal elections, especially the nonpartisan ones held in Utah. It saves the expense of a primary election and avoids the embarrassment of having a candidate win with far less than 50% of the vote.
However, move beyond that, to races for governor, the Senate or the House, and you run into the kind of hyperventilating fraud claims Sen. Cotton made about New York. The losing party will always grab a perceived complication as a life preserver in the sea of doubt.
The overall lesson from New York City? Utah has little to worry about this fall, but it should tread carefully as it contemplates expanding this unique voting method.