Ranked Choice Voting: New York to Utah


New York’s recent mayoral primary election garnered national attention not only because a moderate Democrat won, but because ranked choice voting (RCV) was used. Many towns in Utah will be using RCV later this year.

In RCV, voters rank candidates on their ballots (i.e. first choice, second choice, etc.). If a candidate wins the majority of votes in the first place, he wins the race. If not, the last candidate is eliminated and that person’s second-choice votes go to those still in the running. The process continues until a candidate obtains a majority. Will RCV Help Utah Elections?

Pignanelli: “The ranked choice can pay off. But without an advanced calculus course, let’s drop this nonsense of rank. – Dave Newhouse, Oakland Mercury News Today’s hostile environment demands the following warning: elected and appointed public servants willing to take risks and attempt innovation, regardless of success or failure, deserve praise and respect. The ever-astute Rep. Jeff Stenquist, godfather of the ranked choice voting legislation, wisely said, “I didn’t kick off the (RCV) bill because I’m convinced it’s a better way. I just want cities to be able to try it ”,

Ranked choice voting is intriguing, complicated and very controversial. Despite perceptions of a recent novelty, the process was used – and then abandoned – in various Western states a century ago. Supporters claim it saves taxpayer dollars by eliminating primary elections, increases opportunities for moderate candidates, decreases negative campaign tactics, and ensures the winner has a majority. Opponents claim that its complexity leads to errors while depriving minority voters of their rights. This complaint understands that not every vote is equal, which lowers general confidence.

Many opinions and several studies exist for supporters and opponents, but nothing from Utah. So, another warning is that our courageous leaders are doing extensive research into RCV to determine the benefits and issues for our condition.

Webb: I am not opposed to ranked choice voting, also known as “instant-draw voting”. In theory, at least, that’s a better way to run an election. But I am not ready to approve the new system for the big races. Utah is smart to experiment with ranked choice voting in small, non-partisan municipal races. We’ll see how it works, allow voters to get used to it, and decide if it makes sense to other races.

Obviously, ranked choice voting could save some money. In non-partisan races, this could eliminate the need for primary elections. In theory (again) this could lead to more mainstream representation with fewer negative campaigns and fewer attack ads. This is because (in theory) the candidates will try to avoid alienating the supporters of the other candidates, in the hope of winning their 2sd or 3rd-placing votes.

This is all good, but beware of the downsides. First, ranked choice voting can be confusing until voters get used to it. Expect the initial elections to be somewhat chaotic. In addition, the results take longer to compile. The winners may not be known for several days.

Finally, expect a lot of complaints if the winner of the first round ends up losing. For example, current Gov. Spencer Cox won just over 36 percent of the vote in the 2020 Governor’s Primary, with former Gov. Jon Huntsman just behind at 34.95 percent. Had RCV been employed in 2020, it’s entirely possible that Huntsman would have passed Cox in the second or third round if enough Greg Hughes and Thomas Wright fans backed Huntsman as the second or third pick.

At the presidential level, imagine the great drama and extreme controversy if the first round winner ends up losing. Opponents of ranked choice voting make a simple argument: first choice votes should determine elections, not second or third choice.

If the use of ranked choice voting in the 2021 municipal elections is successful, should it be extended to federal and state elections in 2022?

Pignanelli: In 2020 there were several GOP primaries with four candidates (Governor, Second and Fourth Congressional Districts). Utah’s signature and delegate / convention collection system produced such unusual results. Ranked choice voting could be a potential option for such elections. The process could be extremely useful in school board competitions with multiple candidates.

However, until much more research is done, ranked choice voting should not be applied to general elections at this time. There are many questions to consider: heavy ballots, why other states have abandoned ranked choice voting, etc.

Webb: Yes, let’s assess the performance of municipalities before going any further with ranked choice voting.

Are Other Changes Needed To Utah Election Laws?

Pignanelli: Lawmakers should have a solid discussion regarding the multiple candidate primaries that have taken place in both parties. Determining the specific public policy as to whether a candidate should be decided by majority or by plurality is important. Another strong recommendation is that heads of state need to step up their bragging about the voting system in Utah. While enduring a few hiccups at the start, our postal voting mechanism is a model of fairness and simplicity. Once again the “Utah Way” is a model for the rest of the country.

Webb: Lawmakers should make easy fixes to the process of collecting signatures to appear on the primary election ballot. A few quirks need to be resolved.

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