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Opinion: The case for ranked choice voting

Ranked choice voting makes politicians work harder to earn the vote of the true majority

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Signs show voters polling locations on Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

Signs show voters polling locations on Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

As we head into a new year, Utah cities will again decide whether to pilot ranked choice voting in our local elections this November. 

As a Millcreek City Council member elected in our first ranked choice voting contest in 2021 — and as the campaign manager for four other winning candidates in Salt Lake County, including Sandy’s first ranked choice voting mayoral race that same year — it’s an easy choice: cities should once again opt into this faster, cheaper and better election method. 

While some longtime critics suggest that ranking candidates 1-2-3 is too confusing for Utah voters, the data tell a different story: in a robust survey of Utah voters who used ranked choice voting in 2021, 81% of Utahns who tried ranked choice voting said it was easy. 

Utah County released additional data on its six cities that used ranked choice voting, showing that 9 out of 10 voters ranked multiple candidates on their ballot, and that voters used more rankings when there were more candidates on the ballot. It’s clear that these voters understood how to rank their ballot. 

Of course, the fact that ranked choice voting is easy to use isn’t reason alone to continue it — it also solves problems with our elections. Look at my race for City Council in Millcreek, where four candidates were able to run against each other in a way that ensured the winner earned a true majority of support, rather than letting a candidate win with a small plurality. That’s because ranked choice voting gives us a consensus, majority winner even in a race with several candidates — lowest-performing candidates are eliminated, and voters who ranked those candidates “Number 1” instead have their vote count for their second or third choice. 

One thing we know is that everyone likes choice, and ranked choice voting gave voters more and better choices on the November ballot. Instead of a taxpayer-funded, low-turnout August primary deciding who’d advance to the general election, the larger general electorate got to make its voice heard in November. 

And instead of a 1-on-1 battle of personalities for the months of September and October, we had a campaign truly focused on the issues, as candidates were incentivized and rewarded for connecting with voters outside our base. 

Under the old system, if I wasn’t your favorite candidate, our conversation (at least during campaign season) would end there. But with ranked choice voting, I could still benefit by being your second or third choice. The best way to do that is by showing common ground with you and your favorite candidate — maybe I could show how we agreed on an issue like better emergency services or the need for park improvements. 

That’s why it’s no surprise that voters don’t just find ranked choice voting easy, they like it. In that same scientific survey from Y2 Analytics, 62% of Utah voters said we liked voting with a ranked choice ballot. Sixty percent of us said we were more likely to vote for our true first choice, instead of voting strategically. With ranked choice voting, voters understand that if our true first choice can’t win, our vote will count for our highest-ranked choice who can. 

Ranked choice voting doesn’t support just one ideology or another — Republicans have used it for party elections going back to the early 2000s, and the 2017 state legislative bill that laid the groundwork for the pilot program was co-sponsored by one of the most liberal Democrats and one of the most conservative Republicans in the state. 

Ranked choice voting has already begun delivering on its promise to improve Utah elections by giving voters more options on the ballot, ensuring candidates win with majorities, and saving taxpayer dollars. Now’s the time to keep moving forward: Utah cities should continue in — or join — the pilot for their 2023 elections!

Thom DeSirant is the Millcreek City Council member in District 2 as well as the executive director of the Utah Democratic Party.