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Opinion: Will Utah decide to keep ranked choice voting?

Cities in Utah seem mixed on their feelings after using ranked choice voting for municipal elections. But Sarah Palin’s loss in Alaska and national politics may play a role, too

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Ballots for the first ranked choice election ever in a congressional race are shown in Main in 2018.

Ballots are prepared for tabulation in Maine’s Second Congressional District’s House election in 2018. That election was the first congressional race in American history to be decided by the ranked choice voting method that allows second choices.

Robert F. Bukaty, Associated Press

The days of ranked choice voting — currently a pilot program available for municipal elections — may be numbered in Utah. 

I was about to say that the pun was intentional, but the whole sentence might, in fact, be literal. 

While some Utah lawmakers want to end the pilot program now, despite several cities having adopted it, others want to add yet another possible voting system — approval voting — to a list of options cities could select.

Sure, why not make things even more complicated?

It’s all evidence of what I have written repeatedly: Democracy’s dirty little secret is that it has no completely satisfactory way to deal with races featuring multiple candidates.

You could let a few party delegates winnow primary races to two candidates. You could run them all in the same election and let the person with the most votes win, even if that person gets a low percentage of the vote — like the 36.1% Gov. Spencer Cox got in his primary race. You could hold a separate runoff election between the top two finishers. Or you could use other methods that try to determine voter preferences in an instant runoff.

None of these satisfies all voters as fair. But when several candidates are involved, democracy, while still better than any other method, gets fuzzy. 

The ranked choice voting pilot project is supposed to run through the start of 2026. But a bill that would have ended it early, HB171, attracted a lot of attention in a committee last week before being held. It may come up again. 

The bigger issue, though, is that the whole concept has gotten sucked into the churning vortex of partisan national politics.

I predicted as much on election night in 2020 when, for a few hours, it looked as if the balance of power in the Senate might come down to Maine, a ranked choice voting state. 

At one point, the incumbent, Republican Susan Collins, was just shy of 50% of the vote in a four-way race.

The way ranked choice voting works, voters rank their preferences, rather than choosing only one candidate. In a four-way race, they would have the option to rank all four. Then, if no one receives 50% of the first-place votes, the one with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, and the second choices of the people who voted for that person would suddenly become first-place votes for one of the other candidates, with their third- and fourth-place choices also being distributed as second- and third-place votes.

Candidates would keep being eliminated, if necessary, until someone passes the 50% threshold.

I wondered at the time how people would react if Collins lost in a second- or third-round distribution of votes, especially if it changed control of the Senate. More specifically, how would conspiracy minded Republicans react? 

I didn’t have to wait too long for the answer. In 2022, another ranked choice state, Alaska, elected a Democrat, Mary Peltola, to the House over former Gov. and Trump-supported Sarah Palin. 

Some Republicans went nuts, with Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., calling ranked choice voting “a scam to rig elections.”

It may be many things, but ranked choice voting is not a scam. However, that may seem irrelevant in today’s political atmosphere.

During the committee meeting to consider Utah’s HB171, public comment centered on whether voters were confused by ranked choice voting, whether it could lead to unsatisfactory results and whether it could harm public trust in elections, especially if many voters declined to rank all the candidates. Mayors and other local politicians spoke in favor and against. Some made the point that voters, not city councils and mayors, should decide whether to use it. Clearly, some cities want to continue using it, while others don’t.

But then one woman told the crowd, ominously, that billionaire liberal activist George Soros was pushing ranked choice voting, and many heads in the room nodded knowingly.

That led former lawmaker Marc Roberts, who sponsored the original bill to begin the pilot project, to assert, “George Soros did not pay me to run it, contrary to popular opinion.”

I will admit to mixed feelings about ranked choice voting. It encourages people to rank candidates they might not like, which could make the final outcome seem less than an expression of public will. But it also seems to have a calming effect on campaign season, with savvy politicians carefully trying to urge their opponents’ supporters to pick them second.

So-called “approval voting,” which would be added as a Utah pilot program under HB176, would ask voters in a multicandidate race to “approve” as many candidates on the ballot as they want. The winner would be the one with the most approval votes.

Ties would be broken by casting lots. Hmm.

Frankly, these are all good-faith, if flawed, ways to solve democracy’s multicandidate election problems, as is the current system.

Ranked-choice voting is spreading. Nevada voters just approved it, despite opposition from both parties, as the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported. Maybe major-party opposition is a reason to adopt it.

Regardless, the jury is out on whether it becomes a permanent part of Utah’s election system.