If ranked-choice voting belongs anywhere, it is in nonpartisan municipal elections. Salt Lake City will consider adopting this method at a meeting April 20, and the City Council probably ought to do it.

Use it for anything bigger than that, however — especially congressional races — and this otherwise intriguing way to vote will run straight into the buzzsaw of ultra-partisanship that defines so much of American politics these days. 

Ranked-choice voting has its virtues, but when voters throw the phrase “rigged election” around as if they lived in a tinhorn dictatorship, this is not its moment in history.

Under a ranked-choice system, voters in a race involving multiple candidates have the option to rank them according to preference. 

Ranked-choice voting makes elections faster and cheaper

Say the election involves four candidates, as the Utah Republican primary race for governor did last year. On Election Day, all first-place votes would be tallied. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the votes, the last-place finisher would be eliminated, and the second choices of his or her supporters would be distributed as first-place votes for the remaining three. If no one gets a majority still, the third-place winner would be eliminated and the process would continue.

Ultimately, someone would accumulate a majority and be declared the winner.

Two cities in Utah, Vineyard and Payson, already have used this system in local elections, without many complaints. Outside Utah, a lot of cities have adopted it, including New York City. Forms of it are used around the world. Maine uses it for congressional races.

And that’s where we ought to pause.

For a moment on Election Day last November, it looked as if the balance of power in the Senate might hinge on Maine, where incumbent Republican Susan Collins was just shy of 50% in a four-person race. She passed 50% by the time the counting was over and, as it turned out, the Senate hinged on two runoff elections in Georgia, instead. 

But imagine, for a moment, that Maine had been the hinge point and Collins ended up losing because someone else got more second-place votes among the two who eventually were eliminated. Would Republicans nationwide, in 2020, have called this fair?

Ranked choice voting would have made Tuesday even worse

Ranked-choice voting does occasionally lead to quirky finishes. 

In 2009 in Burlington, Vermont, the incumbent mayor, a progressive, won the race despite receiving only 29% of the first-place votes. The Republican had 33%, but he lost the race based on second-place votes cast for candidates who were eliminated. The Democrat, meanwhile, had enough second-place votes to win it all, but he was eliminated early because he lacked enough first-place votes. 

Did you follow that? Neither did a lot of Burlington voters, who subsequently voted to repeal ranked-choice voting.

More to the point for 2021, an opinion poll commissioned by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics in January found 41% of Utah voters believed Joe Biden was illegitimately proclaimed the winner in 2020. 

Nationally, a Quinnipiac Poll in November found that 77% of Republicans believed there was widespread fraud in the election, while even 35% of independents agreed.

With candidates winning primaries without majorities, 2 GOP lawmakers eye ranked-choice voting

That’s an incredible show of distrust in a democratic system that typically had been a world leader in conflict-free resolutions. And this was after a presidential race that, historically, was not all that close. 

It was especially uncontroversial in Utah, and yet Republicans in the Utah Legislature balked at a resolution, sponsored by a Democrat, that would have thanked county election clerks in the state for conducting a fair election.

Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, spoke against it, saying he was uncomfortable with a line that said, “there were no accounts or charges of significant election fraud” in Utah, although absolutely no evidence existed to suggest such a thing. The resolution passed, but only after that line and another that recognized “the security of the vote by mail process” were stricken.

And yet, democracy’s dirty little secret is that it has no completely satisfactory way to deal with races featuring multiple candidates. The most common method is to hold a runoff election, as Georgia did, twice. But that is expensive, can lead to deal-making with candidates who were eliminated and sometimes (although not in Georgia) leads to lower voter turnout.

Utah simply lets the candidate with the most votes win, which is why Cox won the four-way Republican gubernatorial primary last year despite only having 36% of the vote.

Salt Lake City may avoid such a thing if it adopts ranked-choice voting. As I said, in nonpartisan municipal races, party conventions and other smaller races, or perhaps even on a bigger stage in an age of greater civility and trust, it might be a good idea.