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SALT LAKE CITY — Even though he voted with the other members of the Utah Legislature’s Government Operations Interim Committee last week to recommend nothing be done to address primary elections won with less than 50% of vote, Rep. Marc Roberts says he’s not letting the issue drop.
The Salem Republican, an advocate of ranked-choice voting, said he may bring up with the committee the results of a pilot program in this year’s municipal elections to test the system that requires voters to rank candidates on the ballot by preference underway in two Utah County communities, Vineyard and Payson.
“I didn’t see any reason to fight it in the committee,” Roberts said of being part of the unanimous committee vote last Wednesday to tell legislative leaders no action on plurality is needed, at least for now. “Everything we’re arguing about is theoretical. Let’s see how this pilot project works.”
He also said he’s going to continue to try to get lawmakers to join Maine in using ranked-choice voting in time for what is anticipated to be a crowded Republican primary next June in the race to succeed GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, who is not seeking reelection after holding the office for a decade.
“Is ranked-choice voting still out there on the table? Absolutely. I will keep pushing that issue forward,” Roberts said. But he acknowledged it remains to be seen how lawmakers will respond to the pilot results and to the possibility a governor could be elected in 2020 after winning just a small percentage of the primary vote.
State Elections Director Justin Lee, who said his office is taking a neutral stance on plurality proposals including ranked-choice voting, cautioned there might not be enough time to make such a massive change in the process before primary voters go to the polls in June 2020.
“Something like ranked choice, I don’t know if there is a way to implement something like that at this point. There’s so many moving pieces,” Lee said, that would require implementing a central vote count. “I have a hard time seeing that’s a solution we could reach for next year.”
The pilot program, set up in legislation sponsored by Roberts last year to continue to collect data from participating cities through 2026, also needs more time, Lee said. Several cities considered but decided against trying out ranked-choice voting in this year’s municipal elections.
“The intent would be to see several cycles,” he said. “One election in two smaller cities is certainly different than a statewide primary.”
Plurality became an issue in Utah primaries with the adoption of the controversial election law still known as SB54 that allows candidates to gather voter signatures for a place on the primary ballot, either in place of, or in addition to, the traditional caucus and convention system used by political parties.
The law, challenged unsuccessfully in the courts by the Utah Republican Party, means that political party delegates no longer either nominate a candidate at convention or send only their top two picks to a primary. Now, there can be multiple candidates on a primary ballot — and a primary winner with just a plurality of the vote.
A legislative study of the 305 partisan races in the state between 2016 and 2018 showed that in the 84 primary races, just 19 had more than two candidates. Of those 19 races, 16 were won with a plurality of the vote — averaging 44% for a three-candidate race and 38% for a four-candidate race.
Roberts said those numbers show why plurality needs to be addressed, but he said the situation created by SB54 isn’t the reason he backs ranked-choice voting.
“I was always passionate about ranked-choice voting. It wasn’t a reaction or anything to SB54. SB54 just became an easy talking point,” Roberts said, describing himself as “frustrated by the current voting method. You get stuck voting between the worst of two evils.”
While he said runoff elections would be an even better option if there was the time and money available to hold them, ranking voter choices is “multiple rounds of voting compressed into one” that can help make campaigns more issue based.
There wasn’t much enthusiasm for that or any other option at last week’s committee meeting.
“I’ve been very, very vocal in my opposition to ranked-choice voting because I believe that it games the system and that leads to bad election outcomes,” the committee’s Senate chairman, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said at the meeting.
Thatcher also raised concerns with other options the committee has discussed, saying letting political parties decide who gets on the general election ballot if no candidate gets a majority in the primary “would be very, very unpopular with the general public, who would feel they are being removed from the election process.”
He said a top-two primary election, a so-called “jungle primary” where the two top vote getters advance to the general election regardless of party, “is intriguing but probably politically difficult,” while the price tag for a runoff election was put at $2.9 million.
“I believe doing nothing is currently probably the best recommendation our committee could make,” Thatcher said, adding that doesn’t preclude legislation from being proposed next session. “At this point, I’m waiting for somebody to convince me there’s a better option on the table than to do nothing.”
One committee member, Rep. Kyle Andersen, R-Ogden, asked why plurality was even an issue.
“I just wonder why, why there’s a problem if somebody does not get a majority,” Andersen said, noting that the sitting president, Donald Trump, did not get a majority of the vote in the 2016 election, but still won the White House.
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said most voters probably don’t see plurality as a problem, either.
“If you go around asking people, ‘What’s a plurality?’ they wouldn’t know how to answer that question. In general, the way most people think about that is who got the most votes,” Burbank said. “I don’t think voters are perceiving a big problem out there.”