Will SLC and other cities try ranked choice voting again?

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah cities could decide soon whether to utilize ranked choice voting in upcoming municipal elections.

The Salt Lake City Council is expected to vote next month on whether or not to try it again in the 2023 election cycle. In the last municipal election cycle, 23 different cities tried out ranked choice voting. The largest cities were Salt Lake City and Sandy.

“There were five in my election. I would say it made it exciting,” said Council member Darin Mano, who was a candidate for City Council District 5 in the last ranked choice election. “We didn’t know what to expect until we got into Election Day.”

In a traditional style of voting, if there’s numerous candidates you have a primary to select the top two and then a general election where voters can only choose one candidate. Ranked choice voting eliminates a primary and moves all candidates to the general election. Voters then rank them in order of preference on their ballots. Under the system, candidates can win with enough first, second and third choice votes as lower-ranked candidates drop off in the rounds of balloting.

Advocates for ranked choice voting have argued it leads to better campaigns. Candidates are forced to focus more on issues and can’t go “scorched earth” as much in campaigns, because they can no longer solely rely on a hyper-partisan base of voters turning out to carry them to victory. Instead, candidates must court others to obtain enough second and third choices. But the method has some drawbacks.

“We all spent a lot more money than I think the average other years has been,” Council member Mano said. “I can’t say that’s definitely because of ranked choice voting but it probably had something to do with it.”

The North Carolina-based Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center recently visited Salt Lake City to talk to election officials and voters about what they liked and didn’t like with ranked choice voting elections. The center’s policy director, Chris Hughes, said overall the feedback was positive.

“Voters liked using ranked choice voting. They understood how to rank. They liked how the elections happened. They liked how campaigns were run. They were happy with the results,” Hughes told FOX 13 News. “But as it always goes in politics, some of the politicians themselves weren’t happy with the results. Whether they won or lost, some were frustrated with the process.”

That was apparent in the Sandy mayor’s race in 2021, where Monica Zoltanski won election. She told FOX 13 News at the time she did not like ranked choice voting (and the second place finisher in the race also disliked it). The Utah Republican and Utah Democratic parties have both utilized ranked choice voting off and on in their state nominating conventions as a means of convenience. Then-Governor Gary Herbert endorsed ranked choice voting in an interview with FOX 13 News in 2020.

While the Utah State Legislature has authorized a pilot program on the municipal level where races are nonpartisan, there has been reluctance to expand it to partisan county and statewide races. the lt Governor’s Office has raised some concerns about logistics, including multi-county races.

“To move to the county level, to move to the state level, there’s definitely some bigger changes that need to take place,” Hughes said.

But he pointed out that Alaska and Maine both carried out successful statewide ranked choice voting elections. The center advocates for best practices in ranked choice elections.

“Based on voter response at minimum, people will want to keep using ranked choice voting,” Hughes said. “But it does come down to what politicians have power and what they want to do to change it if they didn’t like it the first time around.”

Council member Mano said he believes it ought to at least be considered again. He would even consider running for re-election under a ranked choice system.

“I think it’s something we need to look at,” he said. “And anything we can do to get constituents and voters more engaged and excited about elections, it’s good.”

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