SALT LAKE CITY — Ranked-choice voting will get its largest test yet in Utah this fall.
The Salt Lake City Council on Tuesday voted 6-1 to approve the use of ranked-choice voting for the municipal election this November. With the move, the city will waive a primary election ahead of the November vote.
Ranked-choice voting, otherwise known as an instant runoff election, places all the candidates on a ballot. Instead of selecting one candidate, the ballot instructs voters to rank their candidates from first to last. If everyone's top candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, that candidate wins; otherwise, it goes through a process of elimination in the counting process until one candidate has over 50%.
The city's decision was made just before the May 10 deadline cities have to notify the Lieutenant Governor's Office if they will participate in a ranked-choice vote this year.
It also comes two years after a bill passed during the 2018 legislative session allowed for municipalities to test ranked-choice voting in municipal elections from 2019 through the end of 2025. Vineyard and Payson were the first two Utah cities to adopt the election procedure, which they conducted in 2019. A poll conducted afterward found that residents in both cities preferred the method.
Salt Lake City's 2021 election features four city council seats: Districts 1, 3, 5 and 7. The seats are currently held by Salt Lake City Council Chair Amy Fowler (District 7), as well as council members James Rogers (District 1), Chris Wharton (District 3) and Darin Mano (District 5).
Those four seats cover plenty of neighborhoods in the city, from areas like Rose Park and Fairpark to Marmalade and the Avenues to Liberty Wells and Sugar House.
Prior to the vote, Rogers, who is not seeking reelection, said he believed the city should wait until a non-municipal election year because he said the system may be confusing to residents who have no idea how the system works.
"I think it's bad policy on our end as a board, as a council, to do this in an election year, at last minute," he said. "I understand that we still have months leading up to it, but we have constituents that have no idea what is going on. They don't have any clue about ranked-choice voting. I know the people who know about ranked-choice voting know a lot about it."
After the system was explained further, he said he was still confused and voted with a "hell no." The measure passed nevertheless.
The ranked-choice voting plan was supported by multiple residents who logged onto Tuesday night's meeting. Susan Sandack urged the council to adopt the measure and "show leadership" by using the system instead of waiting for feedback from other cities.
Among other benefits she listed, such as eliminating the need for primary elections, she said ranked-choice voting would be easier to use and would improve the election process.
"You are all in a position to take the lead when change is necessary to strengthen this community," Sandack said. "With all the discussion nationally about election compromises, steals, fraud and suppression, it only makes sense to strengthen voter rights now by a city commitment to adopt ranked-choice voting."
David Berg, another resident, also backed the voting system. He criticized the city for not implementing it sooner, adding it "encourages increased civic participation, which we're in dire need of."
Fowler interjected later in the meeting and said the city didn't adopt the program in 2019 because Salt Lake County didn't have the proper machinery to handle ranked-choice voting, but she said that has since changed.
Stephanie Finley, of Glendale, argued on behalf of ranked-choice voting, as well. She viewed it as a system that discourages negative campaigning and increasing representation on the ballot.
"As with any policy, ranked-choice voting is not without flaws, but the point isn't to wait around for perfect policies to present themselves to us," she told the council. "The point is to take steps and implement policies that move us more and more to a representative government that is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people."
That's not to say every resident who called in to Tuesday's meeting was completely on board with the proposal. George Chapman said he still favored a primary election with ranked-choice voting because he said it would allow for "more constructive debates" before the city's general election.
Before the meeting concluded, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall added that she also believed the council made a "serious mistake" by eliminating a primary. She said she feared that it will result in candidates doing more fundraising and less connecting with voters.
"It's a false shortening for how it takes to connect with voters in a capital city that has an ever-growing population," she said. "I think without a primary — having run three campaigns — you don't have a sense of how you are doing between those months of August and November, where you can adjust your fundraising needs based on how you're doing on the campaign."
In addition to the ballot format change, there will be a few other changes in the election process. Lauren Shafer, an assistant city recorder, explained that anyone would be allowed to campaign for election as soon as they have opened an account with the city, but the formal declaration signup to be on the ballot would move from the first week of June to Aug. 10-17.
The city's general election will still be held on the same date regardless, which is Nov. 2.