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Ranky Panky

A new way to vote creates options for residents, obstacles for campaigns and headaches for election officials.



Salt Lake City's 2021 municipal elections are rapidly approaching, and Jackie Morgan is busy talking to as many voters as she can.

On top of promoting the candidate whose campaign she manages—incumbent Councilman Darin Mano—Morgan said her team is making a point to educate residents about the city's new, experimental ranked-choice voting format.

That means traveling door-to-door with the typical campaign paraphernalia, Morgan said, as well as laminated sample ballots that voters are invited to practice filling out with an erasable marker.

"People seem to inherently understand it once you tell them it's occurring," Morgan said. "It's different and it's new, but I think Salt Lake City is well-prepared to handle it."

This year, 23 Utah cities will use ranked-choice voting (RCV) for their local elections under a pilot program enacted by the state Legislature. Unlike traditional winner-take-all systems—awarding the candidate with the largest vote count regardless of whether they secure a voting majority—ranked-choice allows conditional votes to be placed by order of preference, with losing candidates' supporters redistributed until an outright majority is achieved.

The RCV format is celebrated by voting rights advocates and has seen growing popularity nationwide in recent years. And Utah lawmakers are increasingly receptive to its adoption, not just for nonpartisan municipal races but potentially for partisan primaries and even statewide elections.

But it also buts up against America's intentionally decentralized elections, adding complexity to the process of tabulating results and clashing against other pro-voter initiatives like mail-in balloting.

"To apply this to a general election contest would be, just, a tremendous amount of work," said Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen. "It sounds good to voters. But they don't understand the administrative challenges of what we would be dealing with."

Ranked-choice voting—also called instant-runoff voting—comes in many shapes and forms. Both the Utah Republican and Utah Democratic parties used a version of RCV during their most recent state nominating conventions, and proponents of the voting method say the largely positive feedback from delegates could be key in advancing ranked voting throughout the state.

"To have them test it at a convention level is testing it among the die-hard base people for both of those political groups," said Democratic former state lawmaker (and occasional City Weekly contributor) Rebecca Chavez-Houck. "Those are the people you have to convince."

Chavez-Houck was among the earliest backers of RCV in the state Legislature, sponsoring the legislation that allows cities to opt-in to the voting pilot. She is now part of a coalition that provides information and resources regarding ranked-choice elections.

She said her early interest in RCV was a result of looking for ways to empower voters, who often complain about feeling like their votes don't count or their voices aren't heard. With ranked-choice, she said, voters can feel confident that their ballot continues to play a role in deciding the outcome of an election, even if their preferred candidate falls short.

"Wherever we can start to take down barriers and find ways that the voters feel that their votes count, I think it's a win-win situation," she said.

The RCV dynamic also encourages positive campaigning, Chavez-Houck said, as candidates are rewarded for generating broad support, even among their opponents' bases.

"What you're trying to do as a candidate is encourage voters to rank you second or third," she said.

Morgan, with the Mano campaign, said her team has been cognizant of that shift in its strategy. In a traditional campaign, candidates might ignore voters with an obvious preference for an opponent in order to prioritize those whose support is fluid. But with RCV, Morgan said, there is a reason to approach each and every constituent.

"Nobody gets eliminated, ever, and you have to consider that in all of your campaign tactics," she said. "Finding creative ways to get to those people for their second choice is important."

Another change for this year's election is the absence of a primary election this summer, with every candidate for city council advancing to the November ballot. This saves taxpayer dollars, but upends the traditional campaign calendar.

"We don't get the ability to do a temperature check of the district midway," Morgan said. "Voters are going to have to do more research. They're going to have to spend more time looking into the candidates."

For Swensen, whose office oversees elections in Salt Lake County, ranked-choice has added complexity to an already laborious process. The ranking grid takes up more space on a ballot, and Swensen said she made a point to also include detailed instructions for the new voting method.

Despite those additions, she said, all of the 79 different ballot designs created for the November election—depending on where in the county a voter lives—were successfully limited to a single, double-sided sheet.

But city elections are intentionally scheduled on years when big-ticket, partisan elections are off the ballot. If RCV were applied to partisan races at the local or state level, Swensen said, it would likely require multiple-page ballots, increasing printing and postage costs as well as the likelihood of voter error.

"It would devastate our vote-by-mail system," she said.

Representative Mike Winder, R-West Valley, said the questions being asked about ranked-choice voting today are similar to what was asked of vote-by-mail 20 years ago. Once voters experience the ease of mailed voting firsthand, they don't want to go back to the old method, Winder said, and he expects the result of the RCV pilot to be similar.

"Ranked-choice voting is like playing a new board game," Winder said. "Sometimes, it's easier to play it than it is to explain it."

Winder is working on legislation to expand RCV in the state. He said it makes particular sense for Utah's partisan primaries, which have seen an increase in plurality winners—or at least the potential for plurality winners—since the adoption of SB54, which allows multiple candidates to bypass nominating conventions and gather signatures to be placed on the primary ballot.

He referred to the 2020 gubernatorial election—in which then-Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox won the Republican primary with roughly one-third of the vote—as creating a sense of distrust among some voters, exacerbated by the unfounded, albeit lingering, claims of election fraud around that year's presidential contest.

"I think ranked-choice voting is actually a way to address that head on," Winder said. "When you have ranked-choice voting, they have to publicize each round of votes. That gives some optics to the ballot counting that we don't see today."

Winder also acknowledged the challenge of counting ranked ballots through multiple instant voting rounds across city and county lines—which would be necessary for statewide races—but added that it is not an insurmountable challenge, as Utah already elects state House and Senate districts that cover multi-jurisdictional areas.

"We see tabulations for multi-county races all the time today," he said. "Ranked-choice voting is another calculation."

Two cities—Vineyard and Payson—were the first to opt-in to the RCV pilot in 2019. This year's slate of 23 municipalities includes cities large and small, on and off the Wasatch Front..

Chavez-Houk said that breadth of participation is what she and other proponents hoped for with the pilot program, which will sunset in 2026 unless extended by the Legislature.

"At the end of the day it's about voters feeling that their voice has been heard—that their vote has counted," RCH said. "I want the largest universe of eligible voters participating in the election, period. I want the largest possible universe of eligible voters to have a voice in who is representing them."