Ranked Choice Voting coming to Cottonwood HeightsJun 14, 2021 10:52AM ● By Cassie Goff
Cottonwood Heights votes to use Ranked Choice Voting for this year’s municipal election. (Cassie Goff/City Journals)
By Cassie Goff | [email protected]
This year, voters will notice a few key changes to municipal elections as many communities will be incorporating Ranked Choice Voting. Ranked Choice Voting allows for voters to rank candidates by preference. In Utah, it will extend the filing date for candidates, create a shorter campaign season, and eliminate a primary vote.
“This works toward a more democratic process. I see the benefit of shortening the campaign season and eliminating the summertime primary,” said Cottonwood Heights Councilmember Scott Bracken.
Ranked Choice Voting allows for a different methodology to be used when tabulating votes. Instead of voting for one candidate, voters are asked to rank candidates based on preference. In counting, each voter’s first preference for candidate is recorded. If a single candidate receives over 50% of the vote, they are the winner.
However, if there is no clear winner, the candidate that receives the least amount of votes is dropped from the running. The ballots of every voter who voted for the least popular candidate is revisited. Their second preference is counted and added to the current candidate counts.
“Voters have more of a voice,” said Cottonwood Heights City Recorder Paula Melgar. “Preferences are counted for second and third choice. That vote doesn’t just go away.”
For example, let’s say there are five candidates running for the same elected official seat. Red, Orange, Blue, Green, and Purple were all running for the mayoral seat and there were 100 votes cast. Red received 23 votes, Orange received 24 votes, Blue received 12 votes, Green received nine votes, and Purple received 32 votes.
No one received the majority vote, so Green with only nine votes is dropped from the race. Every ballot that voted for Green is revisited to account for the second preference. Out of those nine voters, four marked Orange as their second preference and five parked Purple as their second preference. Those votes are redistributed, so now Red has 23 votes, Orange has 28 votes, Blue has 12 votes, and Purple has 37 votes.
Still no winner, so Blue is dropped from the race. The 12 ballots that had Blue marked as first preference are revisited to account for the voter’s second preference. Out of those 12 voters, two marked Orange as their second preference and 10 marked Purple. Those votes are redistributed, so now Red has 23 votes, Orange has 30 votes, and Purple has 47 votes.
All of the 23 ballots with Red marked as first preference are revisited. Out of those 23, 10 marked either Green or Blue as their second preference. So their third preference is taken into account. Out of those 10, five marked Orange as their third preference and five marked Purple as their third preference. Those are added to the counts for Orange and Purple. The other 13 ballots have Purple marked as their second preference. That leaves Orange with 35 votes and Purple with 65 votes. A winner!
Ranked Choice Voting eliminates the need for a primary election. City leaders believe eliminating the primary election will increase voter turnout and lead to a more representative result. Melgar explained how typically only one third of voters submit a primary ballot “It’s a lot of work (for candidates and city staff alike) for not a lot of people showing up at the polls.”
This mean, there will be thousands of dollars of cost savings for cities throughout Utah. Cottonwood Heights is anticipating a $16,000 to $20,000 cost saving depending on how $2 million worth of funding from the state legislature gets divvied between cities.
As Ranked Choice Voting was passed by the Utah State Legislature with House Bill 75: Municipal Alternative Voting Methods Pilot Project Amendments, candidate filing periods across the state have been extended until August. In doing so, the campaign season is anticipated to be shorter.
“I became interested in Ranked Choice Voting because it provides people a primary and secondary election on a single ballot,” said Councilmember Bracken.
Bracken spent some time researching Ranked Choice Voting before discussing it with the city council. He found a well-documented case study where the city of Santa Fe utilized Ranked Choice Voting for their 2018 municipal election. Eighty-one percent of voters were extremely satisfied with the Ranked Choice Voting experience. The Mayor (Alan Webber) and City Manager (Brian Snyder) at the time noted a rise in voter turnout from 27.4% in 2014 to 38%.
One of the main concerns voiced by Utah residents is the ballot has the potential to be confusing. FairVote New Mexico surveyed Santa Fe votes and 67% reported the Ranked Choice Voting ballot to be understandable.
Many municipalities throughout the state of Utah voted to incorporated Ranked Choice Voting last year, including Cottonwood Heights, but Salt Lake County was not able to retrieve equipment and complete training before Election Day.
The cities of Vineyard and Payson were able to utilize Ranked Choice Voting in their previous election, however. Bracken requested to view their ballots to see if concerns about a confusing ballot were valid.
One of the additional benefits of Ranked Choice Voting noted by city leaders is the potential of having a less slanderous campaign season. Melgar explained how there’s typically less fighting between candidates because the focus becomes more on the campaign issues.
“If you’re a smart politician, you’ll want to appeal to voters across parties,” Melgar explained how a candidate could win their election by being every voter’s second preference.
After much discussion, the Cottonwood Heights City Council unanimously approved Resolution 2021-20: Approving an Interlocal agreement with Salt Lake County for Municipal Election Services on May 4. Cottonwood Heights joins 23 other cities incorporating Ranked Choice Voting in 2021, including Draper, Bluffdale, Riverton, Millcreek, Sandy and Salt Lake City.
The state dedicated explicit funding for resident education on Ranked Choice Voting. Over the next few months, there should be educational information on city websites, newsletters, social media and billboards.
In the meantime, to learn more about Ranked Choice Voting in Utah, visit the Utah County Elections Division (www.ssl.utahcounty.gov), the Salt Lake County Clerk (www.slco.org/clerk/elections), or Utah Ranked Choice Voting’s website (www.utahrcv.com).