By: Maxfield Daley-Watson
In 2017 Michael Kaufusi won the Provo mayoral race with only 40% of the vote. During the 2016 presidential election, 21% of Utah voters favored an independent candidate, Evan McMullin, as a result Donald Trump won the state with 45.1% of the vote. Instances of candidates winning elections without a majority of the popular vote is not new to American elections, but several states appear to be making a concerted effort to address the problem. One solution that is gaining momentum is the broader implementation of instant run-off elections or ranked choice voting. While procedures vary across jurisdictions, the basic idea is that voters can rank their choice of candidate. If one candidate does not receive a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the lowest number of first-choice votes is eliminated, and the voters who ranked that candidate first have their votes allocated to the candidates they ranked second. The process repeats itself until one candidate has a majority.
Given the previous two examples from Utah one can see how voters might approve of the process as a strategy for increasing a voter’s voice in elections by ensuring that a candidate wins via a true majority. From the candidate’s perspective, this system is beneficial because it allows more candidates to participate effectively, a phenomenon evidenced most recently in the June 2021 New York City Democratic primary. While the New York primary indicated ranked choice voting’s potential, several problems, ranging from glitches revealing voters‘ ballot choices to vote tabulation errors, shook public faith in this new system. Despite the rocky implementation in New York City, some states remain invested in expanding ranked choice voting, evidenced by the passage of H.B. 75 in Utah. This bill allows for the expansion of ranked choice voting in the state via a pilot program. The program enabled municipalities to opt-in for ranked choice voting during the November 2021 Municipal General Election. Those that chose to opt-in had the added option to contract with another municipality in the state that has experience with running ranked choice voting elections; this partnership is governed by Utah’s Interlocal Cooperation Act. The scope of the relationship is left up to the contracting municipalities, but it can include having the experienced party conduct the entire election for the contracting locality. Furthermore, the bill stresses that prior to engaging in this partnership, election officials from both parties are required to draft a contract establishing the scope of duties as well as any fees associated with the service.
While only 23 of Utah’s 253 municipalities have indicated their intent to participate in the ranked-choice voting pilot program, the policy is promising because it creates a framework for how other states can begin to gradually implement ranked choice voting in local elections. The hope being that the creation of a statewide system where municipalities can contract with elections administrators that have experience with ranked-choice voting, election administrators will be less apprehensive to try the process in their jurisdiction.
Despite the potential of new policy like H.B. 75, a national shift towards ranked-choice voting remains unlikely. It would be naïve to ignore how the tense nature of elections and hysteria surrounding American democracy plays into this debate. Utah is a relatively politically homogenous state and during the 2020 election, it managed to avoid the legal battles that raged in other parts of the country. For this reason, a state like Utah has an increased capacity to take chances when it comes to rolling out new voting systems or changes to its electoral process. Another barrier to the expansion of ranked-choice voting is the issue of reporting delays. As elections become increasingly high stakes and ballot tabulating devices more sophisticated, voters have begun to interpret even the slightest delay in voting as a sign of fraud or insecurity. This impatience among the voting public is something critics of ranked choice voting often cite as evidence that the electoral system is not a viable option for national elections. Proponents of the system argue that reporting delays are not entirely due to ranked choice voting being inherently slow. In the New York City mayoral race advocates point to the fact that had the state updated its election laws the city could have finished tallying ranked choice ballots on election night, or at the very least run an initial count. This is a telling argument because it indicates the true potential that ranked choice voting has. While the shift to ranked choice voting is something that remains largely hypothetical, laws like Utah’s H.B. 75 make it an increasingly viable option as laws are created with the intent of accommodating the transition towards ranked choice voting.