At least 4 Utah cities may experiment with a new kind of voting system

Posted at 4:06 PM, Dec 26, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-26 20:31:45-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- A deadline is approaching for cities across Utah to decide if they want to experiment with ranked choice voting.

The Utah Lt. Governor's Office tells FOX 13 that West Jordan, Vineyard, Lehi and Salem have stated an intent to try it out. The deadline for cities to opt in is Dec. 31.

Ranked choice voting is being implemented in the 2019 municipal election cycle as a pilot project passed by the Utah State Legislature. Instead of voting on candidates as "hot or not," you rank them from "first to worst."

West Jordan Mayor Jim Riding tried it out at a holiday luncheon for public works employees. He handed out ballots with the names of superheroes from Ant Man to Wonder Woman.

"Nobody came up with over 50 percent first choice. So we kept eliminating the lowest and adding their second choice," he said.

As they tabulated the results and dropped the lowest vote-getters, Wonder Woman was the first choice by 31% of voters. She was also the eighth choice of 21% of voters.

"By the time we eliminated folks and moved their second choice into a first choice, she won. Batman came in second. It was kind of fun to do this to see how it may work," he said.

That's because Wonder Woman managed to capture enough of people's second and third (and fourth and so on) choice votes to win the majority vote. Mayor Riding said the idea of a ranked choice vote in a municipal election is "intriguing." He still had questions about certifying the election and how it would work with multiple open council seats.

The ranked choice votes for West Jordan Mayor Jim Riding's experiment. (Data via West Jordan City)

"I saw firsthand how the process works. It was a smooth procedure," said Dustin Gettel, a Midvale City Councilman who has been pushing for his community to jump on board with the ranked choice voting experiment.

Gettel has been through a ranked choice election as a candidate for an office in the Salt Lake County Democratic Party. He was among eight candidates for a party office.

"I lost," he chuckled.

Still, Gettel believes it's a better way of electing people. Candidates don't have to plan for two elections and they have to be more willing to reach out to voters who aren't in their base.

"You want to get a consensus candidate rather than just someone who’s just bombastic or someone who has high approval but high negativity," he said. "Instead of trying to be the best candidate, you’re also trying to be not the worst candidate."

Votes are counted in West Jordan Mayor Jim Riding's (right) ranked choice election experiment. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

On Utah's Capitol Hill, ranked choice voting has attracted bipartisan support. Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, and Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, co-sponsored the bill to allow for the pilot project. Republicans and Democrats alike have spoken of its advantages, including an overall savings by eliminating primaries. But critics of it point to voter confusion and coalition governments as negatives.

The Salt Lake County Clerk, who administers many municipal elections, may also not be able to implement it without a software upgrade for voting machines. While New Year's Eve is the deadline to opt-in, cities have until the end of May to opt-out if there's problems.

Mayor Riding wasn't completely in, but said it was worth trying if they could. He hoped the legislature would provide some funding for cities to try it.

"The people out there, if their first choice doesn’t make it they’re happy because their second choice, that’s (also) who they wanted," he said.