Utahns of all political stripes have something in common. Too often voters don’t vote for a candidate. They vote against candidates by casting a reluctant ballot for the lesser of two evils.
It doesn’t have to be that way. As legislators, we joined forces to solve a problem. New election laws create the potential for fractured votes between candidates of the same political affiliation and could allow the nomination of a candidate most voters are opposed to. The ongoing divisiveness of the recent presidential election left Utahns feeling that their vote did not matter. Earlier this year, Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) overwhelmingly passed the Utah House of Representatives with broad bipartisan support. This new law that would have solved the aches and pains of a growing electorate was unfortunately stymied in the Senate.
Our solution to Utah’s unique election problem is illustrated perfectly in the upcoming special election to replace Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the five-term incumbent Republican who will step down on June 30. Split votes in the primaries, with the potential for yet more split votes in the general election, could reinforce low turnout rates and civic participation.
RCV is a proven process that provides fair representation to the majority. Voters have the freedom to rank their top choices rather than be limited to just one. If any candidate exceeds 50 percent of first choices, that’s the winner, just like in any election. If not, the weakest candidates are eliminated, and citizens' votes immediately go to their next choice until someone wins with more than half the vote.
RCV has been used at the Republican conventions in Davis and Utah counties. It is catching on nationally as voters across party lines search for solutions to the gridlock and dysfunction in our politics. Last November, Maine approved a ballot measure to become the first state in the country to adopt RCV for major elections, including for Congress. Many major cities use RCV as well.
Voters in these places have been inspired by the way RCV can encourage better debate and more civil conversation. RCV rewards politicians for engaging with everyone — not just their base. In a primary with five candidates under our current rules, someone could emerge victorious with barely 20 percent of the vote. More than 3 out of 4 voters would have supported someone else, but an enthused, motivated sliver of the electorate would win nevertheless.
Now imagine that same race with RCV. Politicians would be compelled to appeal to everyone — because even if he or she was not your first choice, he or she would want to be your second. Our campaigns would be more civil and less toxic, because a candidate who wants to be your second choice has incentive to be more positive.
There would be no “spoiler” candidates; everyone could vote for the candidate they supported without fear that they were helping elect the person they liked least. The winner would have majority support.
This rare opportunity would be a great pilot for RCV: It would be only for one race and would temper concerns of an overly cumbersome ballot. While it’s pretty near impossible to establish this process for the 3rd Congressional District special election, the continued controversy over how to fill the vacancy underscores the need for change. We need to rise above political wrangling in Utah and establish RCV for our future elections.
Some have proposed a traditional runoff where the top two candidates face off weeks after the first round. But runoffs represent the past. They take more time, cost more money and usually end up with much lower turnout. RCV represents a faster, cheaper, better runoff system — which is why many call it an “instant runoff.” With Utah poised to buy new voting equipment that easily could be required to run RCV elections, now is the time to act.
Ranked choice voting is gaining support across the spectrum. It’s not just a Republican reform or a Democratic reform or a third-party reform. More choice, after all, is a deeply American concept.
Rebecca Chavez-Houck (D) represents House District 24 – Salt Lake. Marc Roberts (R) represents House District 67 – Santaquin.