Two Dozen Utah Cities Adopt Ranked-Choice Voting

By: - May 13, 2021 12:00 am

A Utah voter casts a ballot in Salt Lake County in October. Salt Lake City is one of 23 cities in the Beehive State that will conduct an election with ranked-choice voting this year. Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press

The number of U.S. jurisdictions allowing voters to rank election candidates has dramatically increased.

This week, 23 Utah cities notified the state they will use ranked-choice voting for this year’s municipal elections. Included in that list is Salt Lake City—the largest city in the state, with about 200,000 residents. Only two small cities in the Beehive State have used the novel voting procedure in previous elections.

Ranked-choice voting has been used in only Maine and around 20 other cities and counties in the country, but interest in the practice is growing.

Instead of choosing one candidate in an election, voters rank candidates by preference—first, second, third and so on. When election officials begin counting ballots, they tally the number of first-preference votes. Whichever candidate gets the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated and their second-preference votes are dispersed to the remaining candidates.

The process then repeats itself until one candidate gets more than 50% of the vote. If automated, the counting takes a matter of hours.

Proponents of ranked-choice voting argue it saves jurisdictions money by preventing costly runoff elections. They also say that it fosters less negativity in campaigning and ensures that most voters prefer the candidate who wins in a crowded field.

The use of ranked-choice voting has steadily increased over the past few decades, building from a smattering of small jurisdictions to soon being used in the nation’s largest city.

On June 22, New York City voters will use ranked-choice voting in the mayoral primary to replace Mayor Bill de Blasio. While some voters in the boroughs of Queens and the Bronx tested the method during a handful of special elections this year, the June primary will be most New Yorkers’ first exposure.

Now, thousands of Utahns will experience the ranked-choice method, thanks in part to legislation passed in recent years.

In 2018, the state approved a pilot program to allow cities to conduct local elections using ranked-choice voting. But only one jurisdiction, Utah County, has been willing to conduct that kind of election. Until this year, only two cities in Utah County had held ranked-choice elections—Payson and Vineyard.

County election officials throughout the state have been hostile to the idea of the voting system, worried it would confuse voters and require purchasing new voting machines.

Seeing the pilot program limp along and needing a larger sample size, lawmakers in March expanded it to let towns have ranked-choice elections with help from outside counties that already are using the method.

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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.