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What’s Going On with Ranked Choice Voting in Utah? A Q&A with Derek Monson

Written by Kevin R. Kosar

September 9, 2022

Originally published by American Enterprise Institute.

Utah is a very conservative state. Its two senators and four House members are Republicans, as are its governor and attorney general. The GOP holds majorities in both the state’s legislative chambers. The right has been in charge for decades.

The state prides itself in running elections that make it easy to vote and hard to cheat. Utah election officials mail every active registered voter a ballot, and every county has drop boxes. The state offers early voting, same-day voter registration, and e-ballot return for overseas, military, and disabled voters. Voter turnout was 90 percent in 2020.

And they are using ranked choice voting (RCV) in municipal elections. So, what’s going on with Utah and RCV? To learn more, I queried Derek Monson, vice president of policy at Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank in Salt Lake City, Utah. He recently authored the white paper, “The benefits and drawbacks of ranked choice voting in Utah.”

Kosar: When did Utah start using RCV?

Monson: Utah’s two major political parties began using RCV for convention nominations 20 years ago. But for primary and general elections, RCV is a more recent phenomenon. In 2018, the Utah Legislature enacted a pilot program to allow cities to opt into using RCV for municipal elections through the year 2026. In the 2019 municipal election cycle, a couple cities chose to do so, and that expanded to around two dozen cities for the 2021 elections.

What prompted adoption of RCV?

The question of whether and how best to use RCV in Utah elections has been an annual issue at the Utah Legislature for many years. Prior to 2018, it failed to gain significant traction. But in 2018, the Legislature created an optional pilot program for cities in order to give voters actual experience with RCV in a way that would allow policymakers to study its impacts and consider whether RCV should be expanded to state and federal elections based on real-world evidence.

Has RCV had any positive effects?

Cities in the pilot program have used RCV to eliminate their municipal primary elections in favor of a single RCV election in November with all candidates on the ballot. Municipal primaries are among the lowest turnout elections in Utah, making them very cost inefficient. Eliminating them by using RCV has saved taxpayer dollars for election administration.

An additional positive effect is a generally positive experience for voters with RCV. An opinion poll of Utah voters asked them about their experience with RCV elections in 2021. Among respondents who used RCV in 2021, 63 percent said they liked it, 81 percent said it was easy to use, and 90 percent said that RCV instructions were clear. So election administrators seem to have generally done a good job making the RCV experience a positive one.

How about negative effects?

One negative effect was a specific instance of confusion related to recounts under RCV. One of the higher-profile RCV races was for mayor of one of Utah’s larger suburban cities, and that election was decided by 21 votes out of more than 21,000 ballots cast. The second-place candidate accepted that he had likely lost, but asked for a recount just to be certain. But the county clerk administering the election claimed there was no provision in the RCV pilot program for a recount.

Ultimately, the state lieutenant governor’s office—who oversees all Utah elections—stepped in and clarified that there was, in fact, a recount process for RCV elections, and the election was decided in favor of the candidate who had been ahead by 21 votes. So the negative impact, in this case, was a one-time confusion due to the newness of administering an RCV election under the state pilot program.

A second negative effect was the increased workload the RCV system created for voters in some cities to become informed municipal election voters. While eliminating municipal primary elections had its upsides, one of the downsides in highly contested races was to produce long lists of candidates for voters to vet and learn about. And in nonpartisan municipal elections—in Utah, city elections are nonpartisan by law—gathering information on candidates can be a difficult task even for seasoned voters. So this created more work for voters to rank the candidates in an informed manner.

Thank you, Derek.

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