Last year’s ranked choice voting pilot was a success, Utah County officials say

Daily Herald
Two Utah County cities that piloted an alternative form of voting during last year’s municipal elections did so with relatively...

Two Utah County cities that piloted an alternative form of voting during last year’s municipal elections did so with relatively few hiccups or voter confusion, according to county officials.

In November, Vineyard and Payson both volunteered to participate in the pilot program, proposed by the Utah State Legislature in 2018, by implementing ranked-choice voting, which lets voters rank candidates from their first choice to last choice.

If no candidate receives over half of the first-choice votes, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and their votes move over to whoever the voter’s second choice was. The process continues until a candidate has over 50% of votes.

Despite skepticism from some candidates and clerks about the feasibility of implementing the new form of voting, election officials only received a handful of calls from voters who were confused by the process, Utah County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner said Thursday during a webinar hosted by the North Carolina-based Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center.

“We had over 350 phone calls about election questions (and) people asking questions about their ballot,” said Gardner. “Only 10 calls were in regard to ranked-choice voting.”

As far as ballots that were mismarked or otherwise invalid, Gardner said “there was not really a statistical difference between those that were spoiled in ranked-choice voting elections and those that were not.”

“It was pretty much on par, within a percentage, probably, of traditional elections,” the county clerk said.

Gardner noted that one Payson City Council candidate dropped out of the race without officially notifying the county, which is typically “problematic because if we pull the candidate off the ballot without official withdrawal and they change their mind, this causes a big problem.”

“When we realized that the issue was from Payson, it became a nonissue,” said Gardner. “It didn’t matter if this person was still on the ballot because, in ranked-choice voting, if they drop out, then their votes just go to the next vote. It actually was a lot easier for us to have this situation happen in Payson and not in Provo, for example. In any other city, this would have been a much bigger deal, would have caused a lot more stress and possibly could have delayed the printing of our ballots as we tried to work this out.”

So why the skepticism? Gardner, who was elected to head the Utah County Clerk/Auditor’s Office in 2018 and took office in January 2019, said many of her peers who work in elections “are resistant to all (procedural) change, not just ranked-choice voting.”

“And so they look at anything new like ranked-choice voting, what they see is a disruption in their current process,” she said. “And that makes them a lot less to want to adopt something.”

State Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, who sponsored the 2018 bill that created the pilot project “to permit a municipality to conduct nonpartisan races using instant runoff voting,” praised Vineyard and Payson for participating in the pilot program, noting that there were “a lot of cities” that wanted to try out ranked-choice voting “but didn’t want to be the first ones.”

Roberts sponsored a concurrent resolution this general session to commend the two Utah County cities and county elections officials for “successfully conducting the first instant runoff voting elections in the state of Utah.”

Roberts said during Thursday’s webinar that he hoped the resolution, which passed both legislative chambers and was signed by Gov. Gary Herbert on March 23, would encourage other Utah municipalities “to step up and test out ranked-choice voting.”

Nearly a dozen other states, including California, Colorado, Oregon, New Mexico and Florida, have used or enacted ranked-choice voting for local elections, according to Chris Hughes, policy director of the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center.

Nevada, Hawaii, Wyoming and Kansas all used ranked-choice voting during this year’s Democratic presidential primaries, said Hughes. Maine is the only state in the country that uses ranked-choice voting in statewide elections.

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