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Politics & Government

Experts Say Utah’s Ranked-Choice Voting Method For Multi-Seat Races Favors The Majority Over Proportional Representation

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Ranked-choice voting 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.

For elections with multiple seats up for grabs — like a city council race with two open seats — Utah uses a different method of ranked-choice voting than other states. Experts say Utah’s way of doing it helps out the majority party or majority political ideology.

Ranked-choice voting lets people 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.

Under the state’s method, a race with two open seats would allow ballots to be counted twice.

“The Utah system is just like having separate elections for each of the seats, as if the previous election hadn't happened,” said Tyler Jarvis, a math professor at Brigham Young University.

Say 51% of voters align one way ideologically and all vote the same: Candidate A as their first choice, Candidate B as their second choice, Candidate C as their third and Candidate D as their fourth. The other 49% of voters rank them in the opposite order. Candidate A would win the first seat.

Under Utah’s method, all the ballots that ranked candidate A first would be counted again while trying to decide who wins the second seat.

Jarvis said because most people’s second choice would be ideologically similar to their first, this method favors the majority party or political ideology. In this scenario, 51% of people would get both candidates they wanted the most (A and B) and 49% of people would get both candidates they liked the least (A and B).

“If you want candidates that are identical to whatever the majority is, then you need the Utah system,” he said. “If you want to actually get representation that's proportional to what the voter base looks like, then you want the traditional system.”

In non-Utah ranked-choice voting, voters whose top choice won the first seat would not have a say in who wins the second seat.

Utah is currently running a pilot program where cities can use ranked-choice voting in nonpartisan local elections.

Rebecca Chavez-Houck, a former democratic state representative who co-sponsored the bill creating the program, said it’s not clear if Jarvis’ point is true in real life Utah elections.

“The nice thing about having a pilot program is we can test these theories out,” she said.

In 2019, just two cities participated in the program. This year, at least 23 have signed up.

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