Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Researchers Are Split On Whether Ranked-Choice Helps Or Hurts Minority Voters

Photo of ballot.
Ralf Geithe
More than two dozen cities are planning to use ranked-choice voting in local elections in 2021.

Ranked-choice voting is on the rise in Utah — more than two dozen cities are planning to use it for their local elections this year.

It lets voters choose candidates in order of preference. If no one gets a majority of votes, the person with the fewest is eliminated. The process continues until there’s a winner.

One benefit, supporters say, is higher voter turnout and enthusiasm among people of color. But others argue the research is inconclusive on whether the practice helps or hurts minority voters.

“The research is all over the place,” said Ricky Hatch, Weber County Clerk/Auditor and chair of the National Association of Counties Election Subcommittee. “[It shows] in some places, yes, it's harmful to minorities. In other places, it actually helps minorities.”

Introducing ranked-choice voting into mayoral elections in the Minneapolis-St.Paul area increased voter turnout by nearly 10% and “the effect on turnout is larger for precincts that have higher poverty rates,” according to an analysis from the University of Technology Sydney.

However, a study from the University of Minnesota found that white and affluent voters had higher turnout than low-income and non-white voters in a 2013 Minneapolis election.

Enfranchisement and Enthusiasm

A new study from the University of Utah, funded by center-left think tank New American, found ranked-choice voting increased enthusiasm among minority voters for the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

“When you change the game a little bit, the final goal is not just [to] elect the final first place winner to represent the party, but [the goal is] also the party convention, which itself is about representation and about diversity,” said Baodong Liu, a political scientist at the University of Utah and author of the study. “They used second choice, third choice, fourth, fifth even beyond to put Elizabeth Warren on their ballot.”

Full Ballot Participation

Academics have also measured how much voters take advantage of the ability to rank, or vote for, multiple candidates. The research is split on whether people of color rank more candidates than white people do.

“The reason that's important is — with ranked-choice voting, if you only rank one candidate, you're only going to get one shot at it,” Hatch said. “But if you rank all of the candidates, if your first candidate loses or is eliminated, then you have the chance to have your voice still heard. But only if you actually do it.”

A University of Minnesota study that examined 2013 local Minneapolis elections found that white and affluent voters were “more likely to use all three opportunities to rank their most preferred candidates compared to voters living in low-income neighborhoods and in communities of color.”

But an analysis of ranked-choice elections across the country from the advocacy group Fair Vote found that voters of color rank more candidates than white voters do.

Gathering Utah-Specific Data

Utah is in a trial phase for ranked-choice voting. The state Legislature passed a law in 2018 setting up a pilot program for cities to try it in nonpartisan elections. It runs through the end of 2025.

“But if you rank all of the candidates, if your first candidate loses or is eliminated, then you have the chance to have your voice still heard."
Ricky Hatch

Just two cities — Vineyard and Payson, both in Utah County — participated in 2019.

“One of the important parts of this election this year — that we will be making sure happens — is that we collect data in Utah to see what impact ranked-choice voting has on these municipal elections,” said Kelleen Potter with Utah Ranked Choice Voting. Potter is also the mayor of Heber City.

Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Salt Lake branch, said her group hasn’t yet taken a position on ranked-choice voting.

“The legislation was just recently passed, so we may not know how it will affect people of color that may decide to run for office until after one of the elections have taken place,” Williams said.

Hatch, however, said now is not the time to experiment with new forms of voting after a year of false claims of widespread voter fraud.

“We know that we run safe and secure and accurate elections, but we have a higher bar than that,” he said. “That is that they have to be perceived as safe, secure and trustworthy and accurate … It's very difficult to convince voters that moving votes after the election from one candidate to another is a trustworthy and safe process.”

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.