This article originally appeared in the Deseret News, Opinion Section, on October 10, 2018. Jay Evensen is a senior editorial columnist for the Deseret News.
SALT LAKE CITY
Utahns may not get to vote both early and often, the way Chicago’s election hucksters once urged, but beginning with next year’s municipal elections they could get to vote early and for more than one candidate.
No kidding. Ranked-choice voting could be coming to a race near you.
This would be an attempt to answer the age-old question of American democracy: How few votes can a winner receive and still be considered the voters’ choice?
That became relevant in Utah last year when John Curtis won a three-way Republican primary for the state’s 3rd Congressional District by getting only 43.28 percent of the votes. It’s been relevant more than once in the state’s history.
But a new (to Utah, anyway) twist on democracy would make the answer the same in every election — you need 50 percent plus 1, even if not all your votes represent a first choice.
In March, Utah lawmakers passed a bill setting up an eight-year pilot project for ranked-choice voting in races featuring more than two candidates. If, for example, four names are on the ballot, you could note your first, second, third and fourth preferences.
If none of the candidates receives more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, the last-place finisher would be eliminated and all his or her second-through-fourth votes bumped up to first-through-third and distributed among the other three. The process would continue until someone has more than 50 percent.
It isn’t rocket science. It also isn’t a particularly new idea. Several cities in the U.S. already do this, as do voters in Ireland and Australia.
But it would be revolutionary in Utah.
Officials with a group called Utah Ranked Choice Voting has been making the rounds of city council meetings, presenting the idea and urging them to sign up. According to the new law, cities have until Jan. 1 to let the lieutenant governor’s office know they want to do this. So far, supporters tell me, a few cities in Utah and Salt Lake counties have shown interest. However, no one has yet sent a letter to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.
Average Americans, who likely don’t think much about politics until they get ready to vote, may not have considered this, but democracy can be frustratingly imperfect when it comes to choosing leaders.
The Electoral College tends to tie us into intellectual knots, especially when, as in 2016, a person is declared the winner despite finishing second in the overall vote. But it forces candidates to consider issues important to individual states, or at least individual states considered to be up for grabs. Without it, candidates would find other strategies for accumulating votes, most likely focusing on urban and rural differences instead of regional needs.
A lot of people would prefer a simple, direct election, but that has its weaknesses, too. If multiple candidates run and no one gets 50 percent, you could follow up with a runoff election among top vote-getters, which puts power in the hands of losers. They will negotiate with remaining candidates to adopt certain positions in exchange for support.
Or you could just declare the highest vote-getter the winner. If so, you might end up with something like what happened this year in a congressional district in Massachusetts. Ten Democrats ran in the primary. The winner emerged with less than 21 percent of the vote. Can she really say she represents all Democrats in that district when 79 percent chose someone else?
Ranked-choice voting isn’t a perfect solution. Someone could garner enough second-place votes to overwhelm everyone else as candidates drop out, even though he or she didn’t get the most first-place votes.
The idea is intriguing, however, for two other reasons. The first has to do with civility. In theory, at least, candidates won’t run negative ads against their opponents because they would want to stay in contention for second-place votes.
The other is that it would keep like-minded candidates from splitting the vote. Supporters point to the ’16 presidential election in Utah, where some people felt a vote for third-party candidate Evan McMullin might split the Republican vote and favor Democrat Hillary Clinton.
With ranked-choice voting, a person could have put McMullin and Donald Trump as the first two choices, eliminating that worry.
To be clear, Utah’s pilot program applies only to municipal elections in willing cities, for now. If the pilot succeeds, lawmakers might extend it to other races.
At the least, the next few years could provide some interesting experiments in the strange and imperfect institution of democracy, which, as Winston Churchill once famously said, is the worst form of government except for all the others.
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