Steve Griffin, Deseret News
The Salt Lake City skyline in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 9, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to the way people vote in Utah, change is hard.

Hard, but not impossible.

In the next few days, we will see just how many cracks and fissures are developing in the stone-encrusted, traditional way of doing things, where every candidate on the ballot competes to see who gets the most votes outright.

Over the last two years, Utah lawmakers have made it possible for cities to use a ranked-choice voting system in municipal elections, as a pilot project. Because 2019 is a municipal election year, and because April 15 is the deadline to commit to this, the time to sign up as a pioneer is rapidly approaching.

So far, Payson, a city in Utah County with about 20,000 people, is the only place with a definite commitment. Vineyard, also in Utah County, and Kaysville, in Davis County, are planning to consider it. A few other cities, including West Jordan, Lehi and Cottonwood Heights, showed interest early and then stepped back.

Pioneering a new twist on democracy can be politically scary. That’s especially true when most of Utah’s county clerks, the ones in charge of actually counting votes, are against it. But if the experience of places nationwide that have adopted this voting method holds true, Payson soon will have a lot of company.

Maine started small. Then last fall the folks there became the first to elect a member of Congress through ranked-choice ballots. Voters statewide approved the change, then approved it again after state lawmakers repealed it (Utah isn’t the only state where lawmakers mess with ballot measures). Now, a bill is pending to use it in presidential elections, according to the Portland Press Herald.

Santa Fe, New Mexico, tried it. Then Las Cruces came onboard, and now Albuquerque is considering it. And on it goes.

Here’s how it works: In races with three or more candidates, voters would be asked to rank their choices in order of preference. Then, if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, the last-place finisher would be eliminated and all his or her second-through-whatever votes bumped up to first-through-whatever and distributed among the remaining candidates. The process would continue until someone has more than 50 percent.

Michelle Barber, a councilwoman in Kaysville, calls it, “a great thing.” She persuaded the City Council to hold a special meeting Wednesday evening to begin considering this. “I think it’s important for municipalities to be bold,” she told me.

Being bold can be difficult when your county clerk says it’s a bad idea. Along the Wasatch Front, the Utah County clerk appears to be the only one in favor. Because of this, Utah lawmakers this year made it possible for any city in the state to use a county other than the one in which it exists to count votes.

Whether Kaysville residents feel comfortable shipping their ballots to Utah County this year, to the jurisdiction of a clerk they didn’t elect, remains to be seen.

Barber sees this as no different than if the city were to contract with a third party to count the votes or to do it itself (both also allowed by the new law). Ultimately, the city would be accountable for the results.

When she ran for City Council in 2017, Barber was vying for one of two open at-large seats. People would tell her they wanted to vote for her and another person, but they worried that a vote for one would hurt the other. Ranked-choice voting would have taken care of that problem. People can’t split votes when their preferences are ranked.

The other clear advantage is that election would become more civil. You wouldn’t want to bad-mouth an opponent if you might need his or her supporters to rank you second on the ballot. In some instances, candidates have collected enough second-place votes to eventually put them over the top.

Elections conducted this way, “tend to turn into issues-oriented races,” Stan Lockhart, a leader of Utah Ranked Choice Voting, told me.

26 comments on this story

As I’ve written before, ranked choice voting isn’t a perfect answer to all of democracy’s little problems. A perfect way to select a winner may not exist. It may even be a hard sell after last fall’s election, where 75.55 percent of registered voters in Utah cast ballots. Some people may wonder where the problem lies with our current system.

The answer is that much of that high turnout was fueled by anger, as well as by the chance to vote in favor of a few high-profile ballot initiatives. The underlying issue of nasty campaigns and a general feeling of futility among many voters persists.

Ranked choice voting deserves a chance, at least as a pilot project in municipal races. Then people can decide whether to keep it.