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

New to ranked choice voting? Here’s how it works

Voters in Salt Lake City will get to rank their choices for mayor and city council this year. 11 other Utah cities are also participating in the ranked choice voting pilot program.
Sean Higgins
Voters in Salt Lake City will get to rank their choices for mayor and city council this year. 11 other Utah cities are also participating in the ranked choice voting pilot program.

Ballots are in the mail! Rather than vote for one candidate in a crowded field, voters in a dozen Utah cities will instead rank candidates from most preferred to least preferred. It’s called ranked choice voting.

The voting system was brought to Utah in 2018 after legislation allowed for cities to opt-in to a pilot program where municipal elections would use the ranked choice system as opposed to the traditional plurality method.

Twenty-three Utah cities participated in the pilot program in 2021. In 2023, 12 cities signed on: Millcreek, Genola, Salt Lake City, Midvale, Payson, Vineyard, South Salt Lake, Heber, Kearns, Lehi, Woodland Hills and Magna.

Due to the special election for Utah’s 2nd Congressional District, Election Day is Nov. 21.

How to fill out the ballot

For voters in those 12 cities unfamiliar with ranked choice voting, ballots will look a little different this year. Elections officials, however, have made it easy to follow along.

Voters will find a grid of candidates on the ballot for races using ranked choice. The columns denote your preferential order, with bubbles you fill in under those ranks.

Your ballot “will tell you to rank up to ‘blank’ amount of candidates,” said Olivia Hoge, Salt Lake City’s elections management coordinator. So if there are four candidates in a race, you’d fill in “one bubble per column and you will rank your candidates, for example, one through four and so on and so forth.”

If you need some practice, we have a fun chance to rank your favorite Utah college sports mascots at the end of this article.

How counting works

If a candidate has a majority of the first preference votes after the election is over, they would be declared the winner. If there isn’t a clear-cut winner, meaning no candidate gets over 50% of the first preferences, this is where the ranking comes into play.

In the next round, the last-place finisher is eliminated. The first choice votes for the eliminated candidate are dropped and the second choice votes on those ballots are distributed to the others in the race. The votes are once again counted to determine if there is a winner. If not, then the last-place finisher is again eliminated and the second-choice votes are distributed. This repeats until a candidate gets a majority.

What are the pros?

Supporters are quick to praise ranked choice voting’s benefits over more traditional methods.

“I feel like one of the problems we have is the incentives for people running for office, particularly partisan office, is to appeal to the extreme, to get through a primary, to differentiate themselves from everyone else and say, ‘I'm good, they're bad,’” said Kelleen Potter, executive director of Utah Ranked Choice Voting and former mayor of Heber City. Candidates have to say, ‘How can I come up with a coalition of people to get to 50%? And how can I talk to the people that I would not normally talk to and say, would you consider me for your second choice?’”

The system eliminates the need for a separate primary, which saves money with fewer elections to run during the year. Voters, Potter said, also learn to look at elections a little differently.

“With ranked choice voting, I know that I want to vote for her, but who of all these other people would be my second choice?” she said. “If she doesn't win, who also supports parks and trails and who also supports the things that I care about?”

What are the cons?

With the positives, come some negatives. Although county clerks said the 2021 ranked choice elections went relatively smoothly, some critics contend that it favors dominant political parties or ideologies over the minority.

Ranked choice voting has also drawn the ire of the Republican establishment. The Republican National Committee passed a resolution in January that opposed ranked choice voting. Among other complaints, the resolution claimed ranked choice and other alternative voting methods add confusion and drive down voter turnout.

Some local officials have also spoken out about what they see as flaws in the system.

“It makes claims like ‘majority winner’ and ‘consensus winner’ that are not guaranteed,” wrote Salt Lake County GOP treasurer Thomas Young in a June blog post. “But mostly, it violates the concept of one person, one vote.”

County clerks make it all happen

Another speed bump, said Potter, is the large turnover of county clerks over the past few years. Fueled by lingering skepticism following the 2020 election, 21 county clerks in Utah have left the job.

There are a lot of county clerks who say they don't like it or that perhaps they think they can't do it, but it's been done successfully,” said Potter.

Although cities can opt-in, Utah elections are run at the county level by each county’s respective clerk.

The biggest city using ranked choice voting this year is Salt Lake City, in both the races for mayor and city council. Previously, ranked choice voting was used in 2021 for only the city council elections.

“In speaking with residents, a lot of them already are like, ‘oh, I already know how this works because of how we did it last time,’” said Hoge.

Despite the criticisms, Utah’s change to ranked choice voting could just take time for people to get used to a new system.

“People learned how to use smartphones and they’ll figure out how to vote,” said Potter. “There's something inherent and intuitive about being able to rank our choices. And once people are educated on how to rank that little grid on the ballot, we find the error rate is just the same typically as it is in other elections.”

Any voters with questions about ranked choice voting can contact their city recorder’s office. For questions about the ballot, they can contact county clerks.

Updated: November 1, 2023 at 8:35 AM MDT
A new version of this story was published adding clearer sections on the process, pro and con arguments and the role of county clerks. A procedural video explainer from the Salt Lake County Election Division was also added.
Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.