When it comes to ranked choice voting in Utah and the Legislature’s sudden rush to end it now, before the trial period they eagerly approved a few years ago expires, Alan Parry likes an NBA analogy.

Several decades ago, when the 3-point shot was introduced, players and coaches didn’t know how to use it as part of their strategies. It was, for the most part, a desperation shot for teams trailing near the end of the game. Now, it’s an integral part of every offense.

“People figured out what was a good strategy in the game and they got better at that,” he said.

Parry is much more than a basketball fan. He’s the chair of the mathematics department at Utah Valley University. And while he is quick to note that his opinions are his own and not the university’s, he has a keen interest in voter theory.

He also understands that strategies are as much a part of politics as in basketball. Both politicians and voters adapt them to the rules at hand. For example, the Electoral College may seem convoluted and arcane, but politicians strategize by focusing on swing states and key districts that could spell victory in a particular state. 

Voters, meanwhile, often strategize that a vote for a third party candidate would be wasted, so they compromise on one of the top two candidates they dislike least.

But when it comes to ranked choice voting, Utahns simply haven’t played the game long enough.

Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden, is sponsoring HB290, which would end Utah’s ranked choice voting experiment nearly two years early. She said it was hurting voter confidence in elections.

Cities have had the ability to choose ranked choice voting for their municipal elections since 2018, when lawmakers enthusiastically embraced the idea by a 64-2 vote in the House and 22-0 vote in the Senate. 

So, what has changed over five years?

For one thing, Sarah Palin lost a 2022 special congressional election in Alaska to Mary Peltola, a Democrat. Alaska was using a ranked choice method. 

Under ranked choice voting, people are asked to rank candidates on the ballot according to preference. In this case, they had three choices. If, after all ballots are counted, no candidate has more than 50% of the first-place votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and that person’s second-place choices are distributed among the other two. Whoever then has more than 50% is declared the winner.

It’s often called an instant-runoff election, because it accomplishes what a runoff election would, only without the extra costs.

As I wrote at the time, Palin split the Republican vote with Nick Begich III. However, she had made herself unpopular with Begich’s supporters, so few of them listed her as their second choice. Palin came in second to Peltola in the first round, meaning she would have lost even under traditional rules, and she lost again after Begich was eliminated.

Almost immediately, she blamed ranked choice voting. Republicans nationally caught hold of that fiction. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., tweeted, “Ranked choice voting is a scam to rig elections.” Donald Trump had already called the system, “ranked choice crap voting.” The Republican National Committee chimed in with a resolution opposing it and has since urged states to overturn any laws they had allowing it.

Which likely explains the real reason for Utah’s HB290, and why some members of a committee that favorably recommended it this week said they would vote for the bill out of concern about what is happening nationally.

Perhaps most upsetting was the assertion, made during the committee hearing, that Utah had learned all it needed to know about ranked choice voting already.

That brings us back to the notion of strategizing, as in the NBA. Just like the early days of the 3-point shot, cities haven’t had a chance yet to adapt to the new strategies ranked choice voting provides. 

For example, among its more endearing qualities is that a candidate would stand to gain most by saying nice things about his or her opponents, hoping those supporters would at least rank him or her second, perhaps securing victory if the election went to a second round. That holds the promise of making campaigns more civil, eventually.  

Parry likes how ranked choice voting captures more data about voters’ intentions than a straight vote. He said the optimal system would be one that ranked pairs, placing each candidate head-to-head with each other candidate.

But an America so convinced, without evidence, of election fraud isn’t likely to embrace that one, no matter how persuasive the data.

However, Parry does point out what ought to be an obvious concern about HB290: “The people who get to pick how we elect people again are the people we just elected.” 

That doesn’t provide much incentive to change things.