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The City Journals

Measuring the impact of ranked choice voting

Dec 07, 2021 02:03PM ● By Justin Adams

Election assistant Becky Overacker helps first-time voter Zyon Bruce in Draper where they held ranked choice voting for the first time. (Mimi Darley Dutton/City Journals)

By Justin Adams | [email protected]

This election cycle, multiple cities in the Salt Lake valley opted to take advantage of a pilot program for ranked choice voting, made possible by the state legislature. As opposed to a traditional election, where voters must select one candidate, RCV allows voters to rank any number of candidates according to their preference. 

Proponents of the method point to the benefits of making the switch, from encouraging more candidates to run and increasing voter turnout, to making elections more fair and less antagonistic. While some of these benefits aren’t easily measured, some of them can be. So, how did this round of RCV experimentation turn out?

To get a sense of how much RCV impacted local elections this year, The City Journals took a look at the numbers for a few key metrics. First reporters compared the number of candidates and voter turnout to the same races held in 2017. Then reporters asked the question: did RCV actually change any of the election results?

Number of Candidates

There were eight cities which took part in the RCV pilot: Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake, Millcreek, Cottonwood Heights, Sandy, Draper, Midvale and Bluffdale. Riverton would have but only had one candidate for each election. Within those cities, there were 17 races that utilized RCV. (A couple races would have used RCV, but it ended up not being necessary because there were only two candidates.)

There were 73 combined candidates who ran in those 17 races, an increase from 63 candidates who ran for those same positions in the primary stage in 2017. However, that increase is almost completely accounted for by one city, Sandy, which saw an increase of three to eight candidates in its mayoral race and from two to six candidates in its race for an at-large seat on the city council. 

Cottonwood Heights was another city that saw an increase in candidates, with five candidates competing in both its mayoral race and one of its city council races (compared to three in each race from 2017).

Salt Lake City saw the biggest decrease in its number of candidates, with two fewer candidates vying for its second district seat and three fewer candidates vying for its seventh district.

Voter Turnout

How about voter turnout? Does giving people the chance to rank multiple candidates encourage more people to participate? Not according to this year’s races.

Of the 17 races we looked at, there was a total voter turnout of 115,851. That’s up just a little bit from 2017’s turnout of 115,008. 

Recognizing that there are a number of possible variables that can impact turnout for a given race, here are a few of the outliers in this category. Remember, this is comparing 2017 to 2021. 

  • A Bluffdale race for two seats on its council increased from 1,418 ballots counted to 3,344.
  • Salt Lake City’s first district race saw an increase from 1,621 to 3,381. 
  • Despite having seven candidates vying for two at-large seats, Draper’s voter turnout dropped 20%, from 10,853 to 8,610. 
  • Even in Sandy City, which had a hotly contested and crowded mayoral race, turnout decreased from 23,007 to 21,246. 

Did it impact results?

Under RCV, the ballot counting process takes place over several rounds. After the first round, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and their ballots then revert to those voters’ second choices. This creates the possibility that whichever candidate receives the most first-place ballots, won’t actually win the election. You might have a candidate who receives the third-most votes in the first round end up winning the election because they built a broad base of support and was able to win the majority of the second place votes. So, did that happen in any of these elections? 

For the most part, no. In almost all the races, the candidate who received the most first-place votes went on to win the election. The one exception being Millcreek’s District 2 race, in which Jeremiah Clark held a narrow lead after the first round of votes, but ended up losing to Thom Desirant by nine percentage points. 

So what?

Based on this initial look at some of these metrics, it might seem like RCV made a huge impact on this year’s elections. But Stan Lockhart, a spokesman for Utah Ranked Choice Voting, said that it’s too early to draw long-term conclusions about the effectiveness of RCV.

“Twenty-three cities in Utah used ranked choice voting this year, and it was the first time for 21 of those 23 cities. We need to be careful in extrapolating too much,” he said. 

In regards to measurables like number of candidates and voter turnout, Lockhart said those have always been driven more by local issues. If there’s something controversial that’s taken place at the city level, like a tax increase or a land use decision, that’s more likely to drum up interest in an election than a change to RCV. 

A better measure of RCV’s success, according to Lockhart, is how voters felt about the process…a question that Utah RCV teamed up with Y2 Analytics to help answer.

“I think the most important metric that we should focus on is voter satisfaction. How did the voter feel about the experience of ranking their vote. And the survey vote shows as high as 90% of the voters thought it was easy to use,” Lockhart said. 

Additionally, 62% of poll respondents said they liked voting with a ranked choice ballot. 

Learning curve

Lockhart acknowledged that there can be a little bit of a learning curve when it comes to RCV, both for candidates and voters. 

For candidates, the implementation of RCV opens up another component of campaign strategy that they normally wouldn’t think about: coordinating with other candidates and forming coalitions. For example, a group of two or more like-minded candidates can encourage their voters to rank them in the top three spots. Lockhart said he didn’t see a whole lot of such coordination in the races which used RCV.

One exception was for one of the council races in Salt Lake City, where two candidates jointly paid for a postcard advertisement, where one candidate was featured on one side, and the other candidate on the flipside. 

There’s also a learning curve for voters, who might not realize the power they have by taking advantage of the ranked choice feature. If a voter only ranks one or two candidates and those candidates get eliminated, that voters’ ballot becomes “inactive.” 

In a close election, a large number of inactive ballots represents voters who could have potentially swung the election one way or another. That’s exactly what happened in Sandy, where the top two candidates for mayor were separated by just 21 votes. However, there were over 4,000 inactive ballots (voters who had chosen to not rank either of the two finalists). If voting is all about using one’s voice, Lockhart suggested that fully ranking every candidate on the ballot is voters’ best way to maximize that voice.

“If those voters had ranked more candidates, they would have been more relevant in that round,” he said about that Sandy mayoral race.