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Should there be a runoff if no candidate wins a majority? 49% of Utah voters say yes in new poll

Results come after Spencer Cox edges Jon Huntsman Jr. in close GOP gubernatorial primary

Caitlin Mullen organizes primary ballots at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 2, 2020. Votes are still being tallied, but Utah’s GOP gubernatorial primary race is now down to two candidates — Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
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

SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly half of Utah voters want the law changed so runoff elections can be held in races where no candidate receives a majority, as happened when Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox won the state’s June 30 Republican gubernatorial primary with just over 36% of the vote, a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found.

The poll comes as one of the three losing candidates in the race, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., continues to be urged to run a write-in campaign for governor. Huntsman came in a close second with nearly 35% of the vote, well ahead of former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright.

Given the primary election outcome, 49% of Utah voters believe there should be a runoff election between the top two finishers in a race in cases where nobody wins a majority of the vote, while 25% are opposed and 26% said they don’t know.

Huntsman, who created a commission as governor to look for ways to boost voter turnout, told the Deseret News that he’s not surprised at the poll results.

“We need sweeping, sweeping reform of our electoral system,” he said, “When you look at those numbers you have to conclude the fundamental ingredient that is missing is competition. It doesn’t settle well with a lot of people that you can win a plurality and then march forward to victory. There needs to be some runoff system.”

Voters, the twice-elected governor said, “want fair elections. They want their vote to count. They want to know that there’s real competition baked into the electoral system. Where we’re at right now, it’s hard to draw that conclusion when someone can go on and win the governorship with such a small percentage of support.”

Asked about a write-in campaign, Huntsman referred to his previous statement that he would not pursue that option.

“We’re still there,” he said.

Cox’s campaign manager, Austin Cox, said it’s not unusual for a candidate to win with less than 50% in competitive races, citing former Gov. Mike Leavitt’s first win in 1992, with 42% of the vote, as well as President Donald Trump’s victory in Utah four years ago, with just over 45% of the vote.

“Lt. Gov. Cox recognizes the need to unite the party following a close primary, and his broad appeal to conservatives and moderates makes him the right candidate to do so,” Austin Cox said. “Further, his experience as lieutenant governor has prepared him to work with the Legislature to solve difficult election issues should he be elected governor.”

The lieutenant governor, whose office oversees elections, has not commented on a possible write-in campaign by Huntsman.

A total of 1,000 registered Utah voters were surveyed July 27-Aug. 1 for the Deseret News and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics by independent pollster Scott Rasmussen. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

“I think voters would like something that works a little better, but this does not mean they have a clear idea of what a runoff system is or should be,” Rasmussen said. The pollster said voters usually don’t pay much attention to the mechanics of an election.

“The minute you start talking about the rules of an election process, voters begin to lose interest. That is not the topic that motivates them generally,” Rasmussen said, although voters “would like their governor, or their nominees, to receive the majority of the vote. That sounds like the way it’s supposed to work.”

Hinckley Institute Director Jason Perry said voters “want the voice of the people, the majority of the people” to determine the winner of an election. But in the case of the GOP gubernatorial primary, nearly two-thirds of the voters chose a candidate other than Cox.

“That’s what this questions gets to,” Perry said. “That is a new issue in our current political system and a byproduct of having multiple avenues to the ballot. That’s why you see 49%, nearly half of Utahns, saying they would like to have some type of runoff.”

Still, he said, voters aren’t sure what that should look like.

“This is still a very complicated issue, which is why you have 26% of the voters saying they are not sure,” Perry said. He said the alternatives to a plurality election need to be explained to voters and could result in the ultimate winner not being the initial first-place finisher.

Addressing the plurality issue in Utah

Plurality has become an issue in Utah because of controversial changes made to the nomination process allowing candidates to secure a spot on the primary ballot by gathering voter signatures in addition to the traditional party caucus and convention system for choosing candidates.

Only a handful of states hold runoff elections when no candidate gets a majority. Other options include ranked-choice voting, where candidates are ordered by preference so if none of them is the first choice of at least 50% of voters, the results can be retabulated incorporating their subsequent choices until there’s a majority winner.

State Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who is working on a ranked-choice voting bill with Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, said plurality needs to be put in perspective. He said even when a candidate wins by a majority, only a small percentage of eligible voters may have participated in an election.

“We have to define what we mean by plurality before we say it’s a problem,” Bramble said. “I think we need to have that discussion and say, realistically, is plurality an issue that needs to have a solution? Is our current system better or worse?”

Past attempts by both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature to come up with a fix have failed. Right now, the longtime state senator said, there’s new interest in plurality because of the “emotion” surrounding the primary results.

Rasmussen said the poll showed a partisan split in support for a runoff election, with Democrats “very strongly in favor of it and Republicans, not so much,” likely a reflection of the GOP gubernatorial primary results since Democrats were seen as more supportive of Huntsman.

A number of Democrats who saw Huntsman as the most progressive GOP candidate in a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic governor in 40 years, including former Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis, registered as Republicans to vote in the party’s primary election that was closed to nonmembers.

Current Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant favors ranked-choice voting.

“It’s essentially a runoff but it all just happens all at once,” Merchant said. “In this situation, we’re looking at a case where you’ve got somebody who was clearly not the majority choice of the Republican Party. If he manages to win the election, he doesn’t even have the majority support of his own party.”

He said there’s a similar situation on the GOP side in the 1st Congressional District, where Blake Moore won his party’s nomination with just under 31% of the vote over three other Republican primary candidates.

In the governor’s race, Cox holds a big lead over his Democratic opponent, Chris Peterson, a University of Utah law school professor and political newcomer, in the latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll. Peterson did not have a primary.

Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown said because Cox won both at the party’s state convention and the ballot box, he believes Cox “would again win if a subsequent runoff election were held. As everyone knows, plurality victories are very common in politics, particularly when you have numerous high-quality candidates as we did this year.”

Brown said if lawmakers are interested in addressing plurality, he’ll work with them, but “having the state pay millions of dollars to fund another runoff election, thus requiring candidates to potentially run four separate races every election year — seems to be a rather inefficient way of addressing that issue.”

Huntsman write-in rumors continue

Talk of a Huntsman write-in campaign surfaced shortly after the race was called for Cox, but the former governor soon issued a statement saying, “while we appreciate the continued enthusiasm from supporters throughout the state, especially after a very tight race, we won’t be pursuing any efforts for a write-in campaign.”

However, an Instagram post last week to the account he and wife Mary Kaye share showing Huntsman with his granddaughter, Isabel, was captioned, “Isabel trying to convince her Bapa to do a write in campaign for Utah Governor. He told her he’d think about it. ...”

Huntsman’s daughter, Abby, told the Deseret News that “nothing has changed on our end. Pressure from outside groups continue to build.” She said the post was her mother “having a little fun after numerous calls that day from people in the community to do it. That was all.”

Jon Huntsman said his wife was “just having fun with the grandkids. People take it too seriously.”

The post has received more than 140 comments and more than 1,300 likes. Huntsman’s campaign has continued to raise money after the June 30 primary, including $600,000 from his mother, Karen, according to state financial disclosures.

Backers of a Huntsman write-in campaign continue to say privately they hope to talk him into running, although they apparently have yet to meet with him. In Utah, the only write-in votes that can be counted are for candidates who’ve filed to run that way. The filing deadline is Aug. 31, and no one can file on behalf of a write-in candidate.

Brown said in a statement that Huntsman “has made it very clear that he will not support a write-in campaign, and the party takes him at is word. The Utah Republican Party is 100% supportive of our party’s nominee, Spencer Cox, who won both the state convention and the primary election.”