SANDY, Utah – Sandy residents will be voting slightly differently in this year’s municipal elections after the city council advanced a resolution to join a pilot program to try out a ranked-choice voting system during its April 12 meeting.
In a ranked-choice voting system, voters have the option to rank multiple candidates according to their preference, rather than being limited to voting for a single candidate. It’s an increasingly popular voting system that has been adopted in large cities like San Francisco and Minneapolis and even for statewide elections in Maine.
So what’s so significant about ranking multiple candidates rather than voting for just one?
“It’s just better for voters, because they get to freely vote for whoever they most support, even if that candidate isn’t favored to win,” explained Stan Lockhart of Utah Ranked Choice Voting, an organization dedicated to promoting the system throughout the state.
This can be more easily seen in the context of partisan elections. A voter may favor a third party candidate, but worry that a vote for that candidate is a wasted vote, since third party candidates almost never win elections. Under a ranked-choice voting system, that voter can rank their preferred candidate as their top choice, followed by their second choice. If their third party candidate gets eliminated, the vote count would then incorporate their second choice.
Because the ranked choice voting system can accommodate a large field of candidates, it also eliminates the need for a primary election. That means a shorter and less expensive campaign season.
“People start campaigning around Labor Day, rather than throughout the whole summer,” Lockhart said.
It can also lead to more civil campaign discourse among candidates. Whereas a traditional general election pits two candidates against one another in a way that incentivizes attacks against one another, the ranked-choice voting system encourages candidates to build broad coalitions of support.
“Instead of focusing on your base, you go outside your base and go to every voter. It’s a different style of campaigning where you need to make your case to all voters,” Lockhart said. “Instead of attacking your opponents, there’s an incentive to be civil with your opponent and focus on issues. Being articulate on the issues is what wins ranked-choice voting elections.”
Other Utah cities have already implemented the system and found it to be beneficial. Payson and Vineyard were the first to try it under a pilot program authorized by the state legislature in 2018. A survey of voters in those cities found that 82% of respondents wanted to continue using ranked-choice voting in future elections.
Following their success, the legislature passed another bill to open up the possibility for any city in the state to pursue.
Councilmember Zach Robinson spoke positively about the idea of bringing ranked-choice voting to Sandy.
“I think this is a good idea. I think we should do this in 2021…I think it’s a way for additional candidates to run and get involved in the election process. I see this as taking away some of the power of the incumbent, and I like that. I see this as the way of the future.”
“I’m hoping it has a side benefit of giving voters a greater sense of gratification that the candidate they voted for won—it may not have been their top choice, but maybe it was their second choice,” said Councilmember Cindy Sharkey.
Some concerns raised by other council members included how this change would affect the schedule of financial disclosure statements as well as whether or not it was too late in the 2021 election cycle to make such a change.
By a 6-1 margin, the council voted to move a resolution forward to their next meeting for a final discussion and vote. In that meeting it was officially passed with a 5-2 vote.