Ranked Choice Voting in retrospect and the future of voting in Utah

Ranked Choice Voting in retrospect and the future of voting in Utah

Originally published in The Draper Journal | News | Feb. 22, 2022

Draper was among 23 Utah cities that participated in Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) for the first time for the November 2021 election. RCV is a pilot project approved by the state legislature from a bill sponsored by Representative Jeff Stenquist (R-Draper). The bill stated it was up to each city council, not the mayor, whether or not their city would participate. Draper City contracts with Salt Lake County to conduct its elections.

Prior to the election, both the city recorder and county clerk’s office made efforts to educate voters about RCV and each ballot came with a letter from the county clerk’s office introducing RCV.

Following the election, Draper City conducted a survey to gauge residents’ responses to RCV with 791 people responding. The majority (67.9%) of respondents said they were expecting the new system while 32.1% said it came as a surprise.

Statistics from the survey:

33.4% were very satisfied with RCV (30.2% were very unsatisfied)

50.7% felt the instructions on the ballot were very clear (9.5% felt they were very unclear)

46.4% said the RCV process was very easy (9.6% found it difficult)

63.2% were confident they completed their ballot correctly (8.5% were not at all confident)

“At this time, the city council has not made a decision about using RCV again. The next election is in November 2023, so we expect it will not be addressed until early 2023,” said Draper City’s Communications Director Linda Peterson, following the survey.

Meanwhile, a panel discussed the future of voting in Utah at a February forum at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. Panelists included Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen, Weber County Clerk Ricky Hatch, Ammon Gruwell from Utah Approves, and Stan Lockhart, a proponent of RCV and former chairman of the Utah Republican Party.

“There is no perfect method of elections. The (current/traditional) system of plurality voting is fraught with challenges,” Lockhart said.

According to Lockhart, plurality voting causes people to either be really happy or really unhappy because their choice for office either wins or loses. He said that there are “games played” with plurality voting, including splitting the vote (such as when an Independent, Libertarian or Green Party member joins a race) and that strategic voting is necessary.

Lockhart feels RCV promotes more voter satisfaction (a voter’s first choice may not win, but their second choice might) and encourages civility in campaigning (if a candidate is not a voter’s first choice, that candidate hopes to be their second or third choice). Lockhart cited New York City as having used RCV for their last mayoral election, resulting in a win for Eric Adams.

Gruwell indicated the nation’s current system has low voter satisfaction and that all voting methods perform identically when there are only two candidates. His nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, Utah Approves ( www.utahapproves.org ) advocates for approval voting.

“Approval voting…results in a big improvement in outcomes in crowded races. Voters simply get to vote for more than one and the candidate with the most votes wins. It’s an election based on highest favorability rating…there is no ranking or elimination of candidates like with RCV,” Gruwell said. The system has been used throughout Europe, in Papal Conclaves, and in U.S. cities including Fargo, North Dakota and St. Louis, Missouri.

“All 29 county clerks in Utah have come out in support of approval voting…not only due to the simplicity and cost-effective nature…but also because it has an audit trail they are comfortable with,” the Utah Approves website states.

According to Gruwell, the level of ballot spoilage with approval voting is low (compared to moderate for RCV) and approval voting requires moderate voter education (the traditional system requires low-level voter education and RCV requires more).

Hatch and Swensen, two of four county clerks in Utah who administered RCV for the first-time last November, shared their thoughts.

“Voter confidence across the country is low, but we do it well in Utah,” Hatch said. He cited an MIT study that found voter confidence has a 20% swing based on if the voter’s candidate won or lost. As an election administrator, Hatch said his priorities are threefold; following the law, accuracy in tabulating results, and removing voting barriers including complexity. He’s not convinced about RCV and questions if now is the right time to make changes. “It’s great in concept, but let’s take a holistic approach,” he said.

Swensen said, “It was challenging for us to administer RCV, from creating the ballot to the instructions.” She later said, “It took our staff two weeks to format the 79 different ballot faces or styles for all the municipalities. The various ballot styles had to be designed to apply to voters depending on where within the county they resided so they could vote on candidates that pertained to their voting precinct. We found examples of ballot instructions from other jurisdictions that conducted RCV elections. We took the best examples of those…It was a very complex process to position the RCV contests and the standard voting contests on the ballots so they would not be confusing to voters.”

Swensen said approval voting wouldn’t take as much space on a ballot as RCV. She has concerns that RCV ballots could be multiple pages, resulting in higher costs to print and mail, and more chance for potential spoilage, such as if a voter failed to return all pages of the ballot for tabulation. She estimated one extra page on a ballot could cost $200,000.

Swensen said she wished the county had more time to prepare for the first RCV and she had a realization after it was conducted. “We definitely undercharged the municipalities,” she said. “The estimate for conducting an RCV election should have been at least double what we cited…partly because of the complexity of the ballot formatting…There were also a lot of ambiguities in the RCV statute which required a lot of administrative time and legal consultation.”

Lockhart commended the county clerks for successfully administering the first large-scale RCV elections. “Until you use alternative methods of voting you’re skeptical,” he said.

The RCV pilot project is good until Jan. 1, 2026. A RCV “clean up” bill, sponsored by Rep. Doug Welton (R-Payson), was in house committee waiting to be heard at press time.

Mimi Dutton