House passes bill to end ranked choice voting option for Utah cities

A woman walks past “Vote Here” signs at Taylorsville City Hall on Election Day in Taylorsville on Nov. 8, 2022. The House has passed a bill to end ranked choice voting in Utah elections.
A woman walks past “Vote Here” signs at Taylorsville City Hall on Election Day in Taylorsville on Nov. 8, 2022. The House has passed a bill to end ranked choice voting in Utah elections. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The Utah House voted Thursday to remove ranked choice voting as an option for city elections more than a year before the pilot program’s original expiration date.

Citing complications with its implementation and lack of enthusiasm for an alternate electoral system, freshman lawmaker Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden, said it was time to abandon Utah’s experiment with ranked choice voting early following state lawmakers’ near unanimous approval of the trial run in 2018.

“I do think the intentions were to help with voter confidence, help with the cost of elections and deal with plurality issues — all laudable goals,” Hall said during the floor debate over the bill. “But in the six years it’s been in place it doesn’t appear to be having these intended consequences broadly.”

Hall’s bill, HB290, passed the Legislature’s lower chamber of 75 members with 43 yeas and 26 nays. The bill will now be assigned to a Senate committee for consideration.

If it passes the Senate, the legislation would change the repeal date for Utah’s voting methods pilot project, HB35, from Jan. 1, 2026, to May 1, 2024. It would remove the measure from Utah code and return the state to a uniform standard of traditional voting for municipal elections in 2025, eliminating one additional election cycle where Utah municipalities would have been allowed to opt into the program.

“I would argue that uniformity within the state, and within cities, is important for elections in order to maintain the trust of voters, run efficient election processes and guarantee equal access to the ballot throughout the state,” Hall said.

What is ranked choice voting?

Ranked choice voting is an election process where voters are asked to arrange candidates in order of preference on their ballot, instead of just selecting one. If no candidate receives a majority of first-preference votes, the lowest vote-getter is eliminated and ballots are redistributed based on subsequent rankings until a candidate receives a majority.

Ranked choice voting has been proposed as a way to address polarization in politics, with proponents saying it gives voters more nuanced choices and creates healthier incentives for campaigns. But some elected officials in jurisdictions where ranked choice voting has been implemented worry it could increase political tension as decades of precedent are upset leading to greater distrust in elections.

Hall, whose district has not implemented ranked choice voting, said citizens in Moab, Sandy, Lehi, Millcreek and Heber City reached out to her about problems they saw with the pilot program, including confusion among voters, concerns over the ability to audit ranked choice election results, the difficulty of vetting larger fields of candidates and an increased burden placed on candidates to run longer campaigns.

Such difficulties have dissuaded most cities from taking advantage of the pilot program, according to Hall. Two cities opted in during the first year, which increased to 23 in 2021 and fell to 12 cities in 2023.

“With less and less cities already not opting in, and a serious lack of confidence in this process from many of the cities who’ve tried it, (and) overall voter and election confidence at a low, I would argue that stopping this program one election cycle earlier than it would have sunset is the prudent thing to do,” Hall said.

Reps. Mike Petersen, R-North Logan, and Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, both stood in support of the bill, saying the state had seen enough problems to warrant shutting down ranked choice voting.

Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper, pushed back on Hall’s proposal, saying it was unfair for state lawmakers to deny cities the opportunity to participate in the program. He called the bill “unnecessary” since the underlying legislation would automatically sunset anyway.

Has ranked choice voting been a success in Utah?

Collecting data over four municipal election cycles to inform future legislation was the whole purpose of this endeavor, said Kelleen Potter, the executive director of the nonpartisan group Utah Ranked Choice Voting.

“I think it’s important to let it play out as it was intended and then to take the time to look at the data and the research in an interim committee where everyone has time to look at it and take some of the politics out of it and look at the actual information on how voters liked it — which was the original intention,” said Potter, who served as Utah’s director of elections from 1993-1998, in an interview with the Deseret News.

Potter was the mayor of Heber City when ranked choice voting was implemented. She said the town experienced what many others also had, significant cost savings from avoiding a primary election and increased civility in campaigns where candidates have an incentive to create broad coalitions, even among other candidates’ supporters.

She also referenced multiple polls, including one recently conducted by the Sutherland Institute, which found that the majority of Utah voters who used ranked choice voting like it and want to see it used for future local elections.

The Legislature’s about-face from 2018 may have something to do with shifting political opinions surrounding election methodology, Potter said, pointing to the controversial loss of Sarah Palin, a Republican, to a Democrat in Alaska’s first national ranked choice election.

Potter hopes Senate Republicans, who fill 23 of the 29 seats, stop HB290 in committee before it faces a floor vote.

The bill’s floor sponsor in the Senate, Majority Whip Ann Millner, R-Ogden, says regardless of the potential benefits of ranked choice voting, the state’s pilot program should be put on hold until the political climate surrounding elections has cooled down.

“Right now there’s lots of questions about voting and making sure that we have integrity in our voting process,” Millner told the Deseret News. “A lot of people don’t understand ranked choice voting because it’s a very different way to actually process an election. And I think we need to really help clarify that the voting process has integrity. ... So I’m trying to simplify it and make sure that people will rebuild confidence in our election system.”

Utah County Clerk Aaron Davidson told the Deseret News he did his own analysis of ranked choice voting following the 2023 municipal elections. That year saw Lehi experience a chaotic ranked choice city council election with 17 candidates on the ballot.

Davidson said a comparison with Lehi’s municipal elections in 2021 and 2019 shows a significant decrease in voter turnout — a claim that was disputed by another lawmaker during a floor speech. Davidson also said his attempt to do a “physical, manual audit to figure out how the votes are tabulated” revealed the ranked choice process, particularly if elections go several rounds, “gets really, really complicated” and sometimes produces unexpected results.

“I just feel that ranked choice voting tried to fix a problem that wasn’t necessarily there just based upon different views of the traditional voting method,” Davidson said. “And I think ranked choice voting has to prove itself to be way better than what the current system is, and it didn’t do it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Rep. Matthew Gwynn, R-Farr West, as speaking in opposition to the bill. It was a different lawmaker who spoke in opposition, he was in favor of the bill and voted for it.