Herald editorial: Ranked-choice voting may be a winner for voters

January 10, 2019

Four Utah County cities are considering whether to participate in an experimental way of conducting elections — with ranked-choice voting.

This relatively new system, which has been deployed in Maine and a handful of cities across the nation, is touted as a way to ensure the winning candidate has a majority of votes without having to go through the time, money and effort of holding a runoff election.

The system may seem complicated at first, but it seems like it may benefit voters and boost engagement at the polls — especially if voters pay careful attention to their ballots.

The biggest change for voters under ranked-choice is that a voter will rank their preferred candidates. Instead of filling in the oval for one candidate, a voter will write in a number 1 next to their No. 1 pick, a number 2 next to their second preference and so on.

When officials tabulate votes, they’ll start with everyone’s No. 1 picks. If there’s not a clear majority, the candidate who garnered the least votes is dropped out. For the voters who initially voted for the least-popular candidate, their votes then go to their second choice.

This process repeats itself until there is a candidate with a majority of votes.

Utah supporters of this proposal have pointed to two recent elections where the winning candidate didn’t have a majority of voters. One of them was the 2016 presidential election where Donald Trump only garnered 45 percent of votes. In Provo’s mayoral election, Michelle Kaufusi advanced in the primary and the general election without winning a majority.

We’re excited about the possibility that candidates may expand their campaigns to reach a broader base of voters, in hopes of becoming a voter’s second or third choice if they can’t be No. 1. However, we’re uncertain if many local voters will take advantage of ranked-choice, especially in a general election, as many might not bother to rank all the candidates.

As part of a pilot program, six cities across the state — Cottonwood Heights, Lehi, Payson, Salem, Vineyard and West Jordan — have opted in to implement the system for this year’s municipal elections. Cities aren’t locked into this option — they have time to drop out if it doesn’t work.

However, we urge cities to carefully study this system and move forward if it will work for them and their residents.

Working with voters so that they’re fully knowledgeable with this new system will be vitally important. Officials will need to have clear and concise education materials available at every step of the process, including at the polls on Election Day.

Currently, many cities in the county contract with the Utah County government for election operations. Given that past election problems at the County Clerk’s Office were so bad that Gov. Gary Herbert called the county “the epicenter of dysfunction,” we’re not certain if Utah County is the best site for a pilot of this new system.

However, new County Clerk Amelia Powers appears dedicated to working with the cities on the logistics of the new system and the software used to count ballots can already support ranked-choice. This may be an excellent test for Powers to show that the county has worked through the issues from past elections.

It is vitally important that the system works efficiently. The Utah Republican Party has attempted to use ranked-choice at caucuses, but it hasn’t appeared to work well in these smaller settings.

Ultimately, ranked-choice isn’t going to make everyone happy. Maine’s effort drew some fierce opposition from Republicans but the electorate overruled the objections at the ballot box. However, given the potential to engage more voters and establish clear winners without the need for runoffs, we feel ranked-choice voting is worth a try.

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