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SALT LAKE CITY — Ranked choice voting made its debut across 21 Utah cities and towns during this past election, marking the most widespread use of the system the Beehive State has seen to date.
And according to a new survey, it appears Utah voters who participated in a ranked choice election approved of the process and want to see the system expanded.
"It's clear to me that people, the voters, like ranked choice voting. We found that in past, that until you have a ranked choice election, voters are very skeptical, and as soon as they use it, they become converted. And it appears that's what happened here," said Stan Lockhart with Utah Ranked Choice Voting, the group that carried out the survey in conjunction with Y2 Analytics.
The survey used a sample size of 1,995 Utah voters — 1,471 in municipalities that used ranked choice voting, and 524 in municipalities that held standard elections — with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.
What did Utahns think of ranked choice voting?
Lockhart said those opposed to ranked choice elections often paint the process as complex and that it could result in mistakes made on behalf of the voters.
"Opponents of ranked choice voting would have you think that this is so difficult that voters can't figure it out. And frankly, it should be somewhat offensive to voters to be told they're too dumb to figure out how to rank their choices. The truth is, it's very easy to use," Lockhart said.
He pointed to the following survey results:
- Roughly 81% of respondents who voted in a ranked choice election said the method is either very or somewhat easy.
- About 19% said it was either somewhat or very difficult. Meanwhile, 90% said the instructions on the ballot were either somewhat or very clear.
The results are more scattered when Utah voters were asked whether they liked the process, although most respondents still expressed support for ranked choice.
- Of the Utahns surveyed, 62% liked voting with a ranked choice ballot. About 31% liked it "a great deal" and 31% liked it somewhat.
- Only 16% said they somewhat disliked the process, with an additional 21% saying they disliked it "a great deal."
The survey also showed most Utahns are satisfied with their elections, regardless of whether they voted in a ranked choice election or not.
- The results were roughly the same, with 65% of standard election participants saying they were very satisfied, and 64% or ranked choice participants responding likewise.
Plurality versus majority
In some elections, voters claim "because their favorite candidate has little or no chance of winning, their vote will be wasted," according to the survey. Therefore, they select a different candidate. Lockhart says a ranked choice election puts these fears to rest.
"Between splitting the vote, the spoiler effect and only voting for one candidate, all these strategies used in plurality voting don't benefit candidates in ranked choice voting," he said.
"So the candidate who wins is the person with the broadest and deepest support, and you don't have somebody with a minority support slipping in because two or three candidates have split the vote."
The survey asked Utahns who used ranked choice voting whether they were more or less likely to vote for their first choice — the results suggest they were.
- About 43% said they were much more likely, and 17% said the were somewhat more likely, resulting in a combined 60% of respondents saying they were more likely to pick their favorite candidate.
- About 38% said they were neither more or less likely to do so, while a combined 2% said they were less likely.
Utahns were also asked questions on elections rules and the concept of winning by majority versus plurality, something that Lockhart says is one of the biggest advantages of ranked choice elections.
- For respondents voting in a ranked choice election, 43% said they prefer the winning candidate to receive a majority of votes. About 43% also said the winning candidate should receive the most votes, majority or not, while 14% said it doesn't matter what system is used.
- Of the respondents who participated in a standard election, 57% said they prefer the winning candidate to receive the most votes, regardless if it's a majority, while 31% said they want to see a majority candidate win. About 12% said it doesn't matter.
However, once presented with "additional details about how ranked choice voting ensures a candidate wins a majority of the votes in an election," the survey reads, roughly 85% of respondents that participated in both ranked choice and standard elections said that a candidate should receive a majority.
Expanding ranked choice voting in Utah
The future of ranked choice voting in Utah, and whether residents want to see the program expanded to statewide, partisan elections, is murky. Survey results suggest voters show allegiance for whichever election process they participated in.
- Roughly 50% of respondents that participated in ranked choice voting said the system should be used for more elections, including for statewide offices like governor or Congress. Meanwhile 19% said it should only be used for municipal or other local elections and 31% said it should not be used at all.
- Respondents that voted in a standard election had more support for the status quo than the latter group. About 46% said it should not be used in any elections, 18% said it should only be used for municipal or other local elections, and 36% said it should be expanded.
It remains to be seen if the system will be expanded, a move that would require legislative approval. Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, supported expanding ranked choice voting in the 2021 session, though his bill, HB127, did not get a hearing.
"It is true that partisan elections are a bit different than nonpartisan elections. But not that different. And the positive experience that voters had will likely translate into a positive experience with partisan elections as well," said Lockhart, who told the Deseret News he is talking with state election officials and will continue to push the idea on lawmakers and other stakeholders.
In the days following Utah's municipal elections, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said she was "pleasantly surprised" with how the process went. But she had reservations about expanding ranked choice voting to larger elections.
"It could be applied to a partisan primary. And that's doable because there aren't as many contests. But if they try to apply it to a general election, it will absolutely devastate our vote-by-mail system," Swensen said.
One of the key problems, she said, is that it would result in a complex, multipage ballot. For the 2020 general election, the ballot would be four to five pages long. That could result in administrative problems around ballot verification, processing, even displaying vote totals.