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What you need to know about Utah's 2021 elections: Ranked choice voting, voter fraud

Marjorie Stolhand deposits her ballot in a drop box at the Salt Lake City Public Library in Salt Lake City on Oct. 18. Officials are preparing for the Nov. 2 election in Utah. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 18-19 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — If you live along the Wasatch Front, chances are you received your ballots in the mail already. And chances are, you have yet to cast your vote.

Weber, Utah and Salt Lake counties are currently reporting around 10% turnout so far, although that is subject to change. Municipal elections rarely see the same turnout that presidential or other statewide elections do. But they are very important.

"At the grassroots level, these individuals have a profound impact on their personal, everyday lives," said Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen. "Especially when you hear concerns about development and the types of development in their communities, these are the individuals making these decisions."

This year, Election Day is Nov. 2. Ballots need to be postmarked by Nov. 1 or dropped off in a ballot box by Nov. 2.

Between a ranked choice voting pilot program, ramped up distrust in election integrity and some general questions voters tend to have, here's what you need to know before you submit your ballot.

Ranked choice voting

The upcoming election will be the first in Utah with widespread ranked choice voting, thanks in part to the Utah Legislature passing HB75, which expanded Utah's ranked choice voting pilot program and gave cities the ability to opt in.

In 2018, former Gov. Gary Herbert signed HB135, which received almost no pushback from lawmakers and allows municipalities to launch pilot ranked choice voting and instant runoff programs.

Now, 23 Utah municipalities are piloting a ranked choice voting system.

There are 22 jurisdictions in the U.S. that used ranked choice voting in their most recent election, and 20 more are using it for the first time in November, according to the nonpartisan group FairVote.

That includes Alaska and Maine, where ranked choice voting is used for statewide and presidential elections, and Nevada, Kansas and Wyoming, where it was used for the 2020 presidential primary.

The group projects at least 50 jurisdictions will use ranked choice voting in either their next election or the one following.

Here's how ranked choice voting works: The candidate who receives the majority of first-preference votes is declared the winner. However, if no one wins a majority, the candidate with the least first-preference votes is eliminated.

First-preference votes for the eliminated candidate are deemed null, the voters' second-choice candidate is then elevated, and a new count is tallied. If a candidate receives a majority in the updated total, they are declared the winner. If there is no clear majority among the remaining candidates, the process is repeated until there is.

"It will be interesting to see, now that we've expanded the scope of that pilot program, to see how things go," Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson told the Deseret News on Monday. "I think the jury is still out, there are definitely a lot of benefits for ranked choice voting for cities — it's a cost savings if they don't have to run a primary, and that can be a significant savings to a city's budget and the taxpayer. But there are also some challenges and it will just be interesting to see what happens."

The following cities are participating in ranked choice voting: Salt Lake City, Draper, Sandy, South Salt Lake, Magna, Bluffdale, Lehi, Payson, Riverton, Springville, Vineyard, Goshen, Newton, Woodland Hills, Genola, Nibley, Millcreek, Moab, River Heights, Cottonwood Heights, Elk Ridge, Midvale, and Heber City.

Election security and ranked choice voting

The debate around election integrity ramped up in the months following former President Donald Trump's refusal to accept the 2020 election results. Some, including several candidates running in these municipal elections, suggest voter fraud is one of the country's most pressing issues.

Election officials say otherwise, including Swensen, who told the Deseret News that out of the 539,000 Salt Lake County voters that participated in the 2020 election, only 85 submitted form letters requesting a forensic audit. That's 0.01% of the voting block.

"Putting that into perspective, this is not something that is mandated by the citizens of Salt Lake County," she said.

Ranked choice voting came under scrutiny during the primary election for the New York City mayoral race, which Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president and former police captain, won.

Early reports showed Adams in the lead, but the counting of thousands of absentee ballots and rounds of tabulations delayed official results for nearly three weeks. The process also hit a pothole after elections officials mistakenly included 135,000 test ballots, which for several hours were reflected in tallies.

Henderson said that voter confidence is something states are struggling to maintain, and she admits a scenario similar to what happened in New York could negatively impact voters already losing trust in the system.

"It might be frustrating for candidates and the public to see a candidate go up and down as those counts come in throughout the state — that might be a little concerning for some people who don't understand the system," she said.

The pilot program comes at a time when claims of voter fraud are still being backed by politicians, including Rep. Steve Christiansen, R-West Jordan, who last week went on former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon's podcast and organized a rally calling for an Arizona-style election audit in the state.

Henderson said the comments could jeopardize the future of ranked choice voting in Utah and faith in the Beehive State's elections in general.

"It's frustrating to me because the rhetoric that some people are using, they're using it without any evidence of any problems. And that to me is incredibly destructive because the purpose behind it is to deliberately sow those seeds of doubt in people's minds, to purposely inject fear and mistrust into our process and into our system, to deliberately upset these systems and potentially even subvert elections. And I think it's despicable."

Ranked choice voting: What does it mean for future elections?

Henderson says the upcoming election is a good test to see whether ranked choice voting could be used on a broader scale, although she doesn't yet see it as a viable option in larger partisan elections. One reason is that the lieutenant governor's office might need to take control of the tabulation process, posing some logistical challenges.

"At this point, I don't know that that is a viable option. But definitely, I think looking at how the municipal elections shake out will help us moving forward," she said.

Some of those logistical challenges, Henderson says, stem from the ballot counting.

"One of the things that makes our elections secure is the fact that it's done in 29 different locations, and so ... it eliminates the opportunity for some widespread problems to occur. And inevitably, you might have some challenges from county to county, but not systemwide."

The auditing process for a ranked choice election is also unclear, she said.

"But again, the beauty of doing a pilot project is to get people accustomed to change," Henderson said.

The benefits? The ability to skip a primary saves both the city and taxpayers money, Henderson said. It could prevent candidates from being elected with a plurality, which is when a candidate gets more votes than any other without receiving a majority.

Ranked choice voting has also been peddled as a way to increase civility in what seems to be an increasingly uncivil campaign process. By making voters choose multiple options, experts say the candidate is forced to cater to a wider swath of the population in hopes to become a voter's No. 2 choice, and the political fringes do not carry as much weight.

"They're touting that, but I don't know if anything is really proven," Swensen said. "From what I've read there's also information that says that sometimes (candidates) team up."

Henderson echoed Swensen, saying that while it does force candidates to appeal to more voters, highly contested elections can still become contentious.

"It's a great notion, I don't know if that's going to play out in fact. During this election, it will be interesting to see, with Sandy City for example, that's got a whole bunch of mayoral candidates — I'm not entirely sure that it has eliminated all the squabbling."

Will it take longer to finalize results of a ranked choice election?

Technically, no. There is a difference between the losing candidate conceding, and the official process of certifying election results, which usually occurs two weeks after the polls close.

In Salt Lake County, unofficial results are released at 8 p.m. that include all the vote-by-mail ballots received up to that point, and results from early voting. A second report is issued later that night that includes results from in-person voting that day, and other vote-by-mail ballots that have been trickling in. Then, a two-week canvassing period begins, and on Nov. 16 the board of canvassers within each municipality certifies the results.

The tabulation of the ranked choice ballots will be finalized in that two-week timeframe, Swensen said. Although the unofficial results, like the numbers the county clerk posts on election night, might not be available for municipalities participating in ranked choice voting, because municipal elections tend to draw from a smaller voting block than broader statewide elections, the unofficial results are often subject to change.

Swensen pointed to several elections last year, where some candidates contested the votes, and throughout the canvassing period some of the results changed.

"Until all the ballots have been counted and those results are certified by the boards of canvassers, they're not official anyway. So ranked choice voting won't impact that at all. It's still the same timeframe when outstanding ballots will be tabulated, and results released and certified by the boards of canvassers in their respective cities," Swensen said.

Why do fewer people vote in municipal elections?

Turnout for municipal elections always pales in comparison to larger races. During the 2020 presidential election, Salt Lake County had a whopping 90.1% turnout for active voters.

"We won't ever see something like that in a municipal election," Swensen said, noting that in 2019 only 40% of active voters participated.

It may be because partisan elections tend to energize voters, and municipal elections are nonpartisan. The candidates also lack the deep pockets their peers in the state Senate or House have, which translates to a smaller campaign and less advertising. Not having a televised debate, and the overall lack of media attention, contributes as well. And, as Swensen said, "people just are not as engaged."

"The races, however, are extremely important for the decisions made on a grassroots level by these officials. They make decisions on development within their municipal communities, they make decisions on fire and police protections, snow removal. They are so important as far as elected officials in their community, and yet people just don't get as involved in voting for these individuals, and that's unfortunate," Swensen said.

What if I didn't get a ballot in the mail?

Most of the municipalities in Salt Lake County are holding elections. But some cities, like Salt Lake City and Millcreek, have staggered elections. So there are some mayoral and council seats that are not up for reelection. Still, about 89% of the voters in Salt Lake County will be eligible to participate.

If you didn't receive a ballot, call your county clerk. You can also vote in person, either during early voting or on Election Day. You can register and vote on the same day — just make sure you bring a valid ID and, if you plan on registering, some proof of residency like a utility bill.

Races to watch

Though municipal election years aren't as exciting or heated as presidential years, they're still extremely important as they're voters' opportunity to elect who they want as their leaders at the most local of levels. Decisions relating to growth, development, funding for public safety and open space all fall on locally elected leaders.

Here are some of the most high-profile local elections happening this year along the Wasatch Front:

  • In Utah's capital city, five Salt Lake City Council districts are up for election this year: districts 1, 2, 3, 5 and 7. Salt Lake City is one of 23 Utah cities participating in ranked choice voting this year.
  • Sandy City's mayoral election has a whooping eight candidates, some of them current and former city council members, vying for the seat. The South Salt Lake mayoral race, which will also go through ranked choice voting, includes incumbent Cherie Wood, District 5 Councilman Shane Siwik and Jake Christensen.
  • In Provo, Mayor Michelle Kaufusi is being challenged by Ken Dudley, who was shot twice while driving his car during a protest against police brutality in Provo last year.
  • Turnout in Weber County has been slow, Weber County Clerk Auditor Ricky Hatch said, due to the county's larger cities not having open mayoral seats. But the mayoral races in West Haven, between incumbent Sharon Bolos and City Councilman Rob Vanderwood, and Huntsville, between Doug Allen and Richard Sorensen, are both highly contested, he said.
  • In Utah County, Lehi has nine candidates vying for two city council seats, while Springville has seven competing for two seats. Both cities are participating in ranked choice voting and did not hold a primary.
  • Springville will also see a new mayor come November — candidates Matt Packard, Matthew Norman Bradley and Ryan Miller are running to replace current mayor Richard Child.
  • The mayoral race in Bountiful is between Kendalyn Keyes Harris, a city councilwoman of eight years, and two-term incumbent Mayor Randy Lewis.

A look at Sandy City's crowded mayoral race

One of Utah's most crowded — and contentious — elections this year is for Sandy City mayor. The suburb about 20 miles south of Utah's capital is grappling with the same issues many other cities across the Wasatch Front are wrestling with as Utah continues to be one of the fastest-growing states in the nation.

Growth, density, zoning laws and city management have dominated the debate in Sandy, which has, like many other cities, struggled with rising housing prices. It's a question Utah cities have been grappling with for years, accelerated by the pandemic — how do you balance quality of life with unprecedented growth?

Because the city is piloting ranked choice voting and did not hold a primary, eight candidates are vying to fill the seat Sandy Mayor Kurt Bradburn has decided to give up after he opted not to run for reelection — despite winning a hard-fought election of his own four years ago.

In 2017, Bradburn defeated Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan, who held the seat for 24 years. Bradburn would see controversy in the following four years, including giving himself a pay raise, a drinking water crisis and a tense relationship with the Sandy City Council. Bradburn announced he would not be seeking reelection, saying he instead wants to focus on his family.

Here are the candidates running to be Sandy's next mayor. The following is a compilation of information pulled from each candidate's website and a statement provided to the Deseret News, along with three issues each candidate is prioritizing.

Brooke Christensen

Current Sandy City Councilwoman Brooke Christensen has managed global supply chains for "major U.S. companies," and "is endorsed by the police and fire associations in Sandy." Christensen sits on a number boards including the South Valley Chamber of Commerce Board and the Hale Centre Theatre Executive Board, the Public Utilities Board and Utah League of Cities and Towns.

Top priorities:

  • Public safety — adequate staffing and funding.
  • Keeping high-density housing out of neighborhoods.
  • Conservative budgeting — keeping taxes low while addressing Sandy's aging infrastructure.

Jim Bennett

The son of longtime Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, Jim Bennett has lived in Sandy for nearly 20 years. Bennett "believes Sandy's current city government is dysfunctional and that those who broke it are unable to fix it," and he touts his current role as a partner in Canonizer, "a business that builds consensus from diverse opinions — something Sandy sorely needs."

Top priorities:

  • Make Sandy City government responsive and responsible to its residents.
  • Develop a sustainable tax base through economic development.
  • Hire, equip, train and retain the best police, fire and other public safety officers.

Kris Nicholl

Sandy native Kris Nicholl has served on the Sandy City Council since 2013, and was awarded Elected Official of the Year in 2016. She spent over two years on the planning commission "studying the intricacies of state and local zoning laws and code, which she used to protect existing neighborhoods, Sandy Foothills, Dimple Dell, and other outdoor spaces."

Top priorities:

  • Balancing budget, preparing for emergencies, respecting taxpayers' budgets, as we prioritize public safety and other core functions.
  • Reducing dependence on residents by strengthening tax base with targeted economic development and nimble, healthy business community.
  • Expanding citizen input in growth decisions to better preserve Sandy's desirable attributes and quality of life.

Linda Saville

A lifelong Sandy resident and 24-year Sandy City Council veteran, Saville is currently the president of the Sandy Senior Center and founded the club "A Safe Place for Boys and Girls." Saville "would be honored to serve you as your next mayor with honesty, integrity, transparency and keeping her office door open and accessible to all of Sandy's residents."

Top priorities:

  • A need to foster an internal and external communication culture with citizens, employees and partners.
  • A need to promote the mental and physical welfare of citizens and employees.
  • A need for a smart growth economic development strategy.

Marci Houseman

A current Sandy City councilwoman and mother of four, Marci Houseman says "Sandy City has a history of being one of the best-managed cities in the state. That is no longer the case." Houseman wants to repair the partnership with the city administration and City Council, and will do so with a "limited taxation and limited government" approach.

Top priorities:

  • Transform our approach to budgeting in order to maximize outcomes for residents.
  • Foster economic development by building effective partnerships, recruiting diverse industries and promoting educational opportunities for all.
  • Prepare and plan for responsible growth by looking for innovative ways to redevelop the commercial areas in Sandy that are in need of revitalization.

Mike Applegarth

Mike Applegarth has worked as the executive director of the Sandy City Council for nearly seven years. His campaign website describes him as "the best-trained mayor-in-waiting," bringing "decades of experience with management roles in state, county, special district, and municipal government." He says he will govern "without resorting to political games and finger-pointing."

Top priorities:

  • Leveraging his experience as a public administrator to manage Sandy City professionally, not politically.
  • Not only maintaining competitive compensation for police and fire personnel but adding additional positions to keep up with growing demand.
  • Fixing the aging infrastructure we rely on such as water lines, fire stations, sidewalks, the city fleet, and amenities such as the Alta Canyon Sports Center.

Monica Zoltanski

Current Sandy City Councilwoman and former Sandy prosecutor Monica Zoltanski started her political career with the "Keep Dimple Dell Wild" campaign aimed at stopping a paving project in the city's canyon. "That experience opened my eyes to the pressures of development and how developers work to elect candidates who support their projects," she said, also pointing to her "proven record of service and bringing people together."

Top priorities:

  • Responsive government that puts the focus on the people of Sandy, not special interests.
  • Protect neighborhoods and open space from density and invest in maintaining our high quality of life instead of chasing new growth.
  • Keep taxes low while supporting police, fire, city personnel with a culture of respect and pride as we serve our residents.

Ron Jones

Ron Jones grew up in Sandy and worked internationally before retiring in 2004. Though he admits to being less familiar to aspects of government than some of the other candidates, Jones intends "to fully utilize the advice and counsel not only of all those good people who serve with me in city government ... but also invite and carefully consider input from our citizens."

Top priorities:

  • Election integrity — serious questions, supported by a mass of unchallenged data, need answering.
  • Half of Americans think there was fraud in the 2020 election. We need full forensic election audits of the 2020 election.
  • Rule of law — a fully funded, well-organized and managed police force and rigorous enforcement of the law. Local control of zoning — zoning should be administered in the interests of existing residents, not dictated from above by state or federal authorities.

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Kyle Dunphey

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