Utah politicians and activists have long debated changes to how political parties nominate candidates. Before 2014, Utah was one of the few states to do what all states used to do in the 19th century -- effectively nominate candidates without primaries. Private conventions and caucuses often selected Utah’s major party nominees, and at a minimum reduced the primary election field to two.
Yet, as true of every state, winning the nomination of the majority party in a legislative district or statewide (with Utah being a heavily Republican state) effectively decided representation in most elections. Increasingly concerned that few voters were participating directly in contests effectively deciding their representation, some influential Utah leaders formed a group called Count My Vote. In 2014, it organized an initiative campaign to move the state to a more open primary process.
As the initiative gathered steam, legislative leaders led by influential Republican senator Curt Bramble brokered a compromise. Passed in 2014, SB 54 allowed candidates to bypass the conventions and petition to go straight to the primary ballot. Starting in 2016, party caucuses and conventions could still send up to two candidate to the primary ballot, but for the first time in Utah’s history, additional candidates also could petition to be on the primary ballot. The Utah Republican Party vigorously opposed the legislation, fighting it in court and in the legislature.
Although the weakened role of the conventions remains a key part of the debate, another issue of great concern was how to ensure a party nominee wasn’t opposed by most in the party. Before 2016, with primary fields limited to two, the primary winner was always a majority winner. But now winner can have far less support -- for example in last year’s crowded Republicans presidential primaries, no state was won with more than half the vote until late April.
This year, Sen. Bramble has proposed legislation designed to encourage the Utah Republican Party to accept SB 54. To avoid low plurality primary winners, Bramble’s SB 114 would establish a primary runoff rule, but only under limited circumstances. First, there would need to be more than three candidates --meaning that in a three candidate race, the winner could have as little as 33.4% of the primary vote. Second, the threshold to avoid runoffs in a race with four or more candidate would be 35% -- meaning that a candidate strongly opposed by up to 65% of primary voters could be the party’s nominee. Third, the schedule would need to be adjusted to give election officials enough time to administer a vote-by-mail runoff, with the first primary advanced to earlier in the year.
Sen. Bramble’s bill passed in the state senate, and Utah Republicans indicated they would drop their lawsuit, but election officials are concerned that the bill schedules the runoff too soon after the primary for them to adequately prepare. Holding it any later would run into the fall campaign season, requiring candidates to raise more money and potentially damaging their reputations ahead of the general election. The bill is delayed in the house - with concern apparently centering around changes in the primary date and the ongoing ability to be nominated with a low percentage of the vote.
Those concerns make another piece of legislation all the more worthy of consideration. Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck has filed HB 349, to use ranked choice voting (RCV, also called “preferential voting” and “instant runoff voting”) in primary and general elections. Announcing the bill, Chavez-Houck said “Ranked voting creates opportunities for representation that most reflects the spectrum and diversity of voters and opinions in our state. It solves problems of plurality and can increase turnout, which Utah needs. Utahns deserve to be invested in their government, to feel that their vote counts.”
FairVote’s Ranked Choice Voting Research Center and its director Gary Bartlett, former executive director of elections in North Carolina, recently produced two memos that address the debate in Utah. The first memo outlines the options for implementing ranked choice voting in Utah, with the conclusion that the state’s potential move to new voting equipment giving Utah enough time to have ranked choice voting-ready equipment by the 2018 primary. The second memo details Bartlett’s history with administering runoff elections in North Carolina, and their challenges involving costs and low turnout in runoffs.
There is hope that both legislators and election administrators can come together around ranked choice voting as the solution. The Utah Republican Party in fact has often used ranked choice voting at its state and county conventions, with several current legislators selected to fill vacancies with ranked choice voting. And Sen. Bramble’s bill already anticipates using ranked choice voting ballots to address one group of voters. His bill provides for ranked ballots to be given to overseas and military voters, as already done in federal elections in five states in 2014 and 2016. This use of ranked choice voting allows election administrators to ensure those voters have their votes count in the decisive election, even with a relatively quick turnaround between elections
Ranked choice voting would neatly solve concerns about Bramble’s runoff bill. The threshold to win could remain at 50% + 1, for example, and the primary election date wouldn’t need to change. There would be no ongoing costs and burdens for election officials administering low-turnout runoffs. Should Chavez-Houck’s bill pass, candidates would be nominated in one, decisive election, free from the increased costs, negative campaigning, and sharp turnout declines. The winner would be elected with a real majority of votes in the final round, whether there are three, four, or even more candidates running.
Stay tuned. Even if Utah doesn’t adopt ranked choice voting this year, it’s a state where concerns about plurality voting are substantial - and ranked choice voting will remain an attractive, proven option for policymakers.