On March 8, the Utah Legislature wrapped up its brief 45-day session. One of its last actions was to pass HB0035, a measure to create a pilot program for ranked choice voting (RCV) at the city level. The bill now sits on Governor Gary Herbert's desk after receiving a combined 89 votes in favor to only three against in the state House and Senate. With his signature, Utah cities would be able to implement ranked choice voting to elect local officials.
This bill offers a great opportunity for Utahns to address issues that have plagued local elections. Ranked choice voting would give voters in Utah the ability to ensure that local policymakers are elected with majority support without the need for expensive and low turnout preliminary or runoff elections, even in races where a large number of candidates run.
This would have come in handy last year when the City of Provo held its elections for city council and mayor. The mayoral contest was contentious, to say the least. The primary election featured nine different candidates for the position. Three contenders - Sherrie Hall Everest, Michelle Kaufusi, and Odell Miner - emerged at the top of the pack, each receiving more than 20 percent of the vote while no other candidate surpassed single digits.
Even though three candidates emerged as clear frontrunners, only two could move on to the general election. This should have set up a general election between Kaufusi and Hall Everett, who had beat Miner by just one percent to finish second. However, Miner did not drop out of the race. He filed as a write-in candidate and continued to campaign.
When the general election came around in November, the results were markedly similar to the primary. Kaufusi won the seat with 40 percent of the vote, Hall Everett finished second with 35 percent, and Miner’s 25 percent gave him a strong third-place finish. To many, this result was problematic and undemocratic. Kaufusi did receive more votes than the other candidates, but she did not receive a majority. By running as a write-in candidate, it has been alleged that Miner may have “spoiled” the race by drawing votes from one of the other candidates that otherwise would have allowed them to surpass the 50 percent threshold.
This is an issue that RCV is able to address. By allowing voters to rank the candidates on their ballot, RCV allows an “instant runoff” to take place when no candidate receives more than half of the votes. The candidate with the least support is eliminated and anyone who voted for them has their next choice counted instead. This process repeats until one candidate attains a majority of votes. In this way, RCV is able to eliminate the “spoiler effect” from races in which there are more than two candidates for a single seat.
HB0035 is too late to save Provo’s 2017 mayoral election from the spoiler effect, but this problem does not have to persist into the future. With Gov. Herbert's signature, the state of Utah will be giving its cities a powerful and effective tool to prevent spoilers in future races.