Despite disastrous outcomes in Alaska, Maine, and multiple U.S. municipalities due to ranked-choice voting, Utah is considering legislation to follow their steps.
House Bill 205 passed the Utah House of Representatives on Feb. 17. It now awaits a vote in the Senate. The measure would allow local jurisdictions to switch from a winner-take-all to a ranked-choice voting system for state and federal primary elections.
In such a system, voters would have to rank up to five candidates for each election in order of preference. If a candidate does not win more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round of tabulation, then an “instant runoff” would be held between the two highest vote-getters.
Votes for the candidates who didn’t make it to the runoff would be reallocated to the two top vote-getters according to voters’ rankings until one of the top two vote-getters reaches a majority. As such, candidates could no longer win with a simple plurality of votes.
House Bill 205 comes after local officials have reported multiple problems with enacting the state’s RCV pilot program in county elections. Because of the complicated nature of the tabulation process with RCV, many ballots have failed to be counted.
For example, 58 percent of ballots were either discarded or spoiled in 2021’s Genola City Council Race, often because those voters failed to rank a second choice, according to the Election Transparency Initiative. Ballots with only one candidate selected for a position are “exhausted,” or thrown out, if the voter’s top choice doesn’t win a majority in the first round. That can eliminate election-tipping numbers of votes from counting toward the final results.
“The pilot program has not gone well,” Jason Snead, executive director of the Honest Elections Project, told The Federalist. “There have been a number of jurisdictions that have likened it to being treated like a guinea pig and have noted all the problems we’ve seen with RCV elsewhere. It discourages turnout, it’s complicated, it’s expensive. All of the benefits that were promised have failed to materialize.”
Residents in Oakland, California, have also experienced myriad problems with RCV. After nearly two months of tabulation following an Oakland School Board race, election officials announced they got the count wrong due to a computer-programming error tabulating the complicated results. As such, the candidate who won the most votes in the election is suing for his seat.
It’s not just tabulation problems that make RCV a conduit for upside-down election processes and results. The process subverts the will of voters by helping push out insurgent candidates who have majority support from their party’s voters for establishment-backed contenders who can’t win outright. This is how Republican Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski was able to win her primary against Trump-backed challenger Kelly Tshibaka during the 2022 midterms.
Because many Democratic voters listed Murkowski as their second choice during the jungle primary, Murkowski won a majority of votes on the second round of tabulation. RCV is also how Democrat Mary Peltola last year won Alaska’s lone congressional seat, despite nearly 60 percent of voters casting their ballots for a Republican.
According to a Letter to the Editor to the Salt Lake Tribune, RCV could also be used to oust Republican Sen. Mike Lee from office in favor of a Democrat-approved U.S. senator in a tightly divided U.S. Senate. Lee did not respond to requests for comment.
“Under RCV, liberal politicians get elected to office and conservative candidates are defeated,” National Chairman of the Election Transparency Initiative and former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said in a press release. “Now more than ever, we need to protect the integrity of our elections, but House Bill 205 would do the opposite and erode voters’ confidence in elections where every vote counts fairly, openly, and equally… Utah should be getting rid of the RCV scheme, not expanding it!”
As previously reported by The Federalist, multiple states are passing legislation banning RCV, including South Dakota, Montana, North Dakota, and Idaho.