Moab City will use a ranked choice voting ballot for city council elections later this year, the council voted unanimously on Tuesday, with help from the Utah County Elections Team as part of the Municipal Alternative Voting Methods Pilot Project.
“One of the selling points is that ranked choice voting brings people together,” said Josh Daniels, chief deputy clerk auditor for Utah County, at a special meeting on April 20.
“One of the theories is that rather than a campaign strategy rooted in burning down your opponent...you can have more collaborative campaigns,” said Daniels. The Utah County Elections Team is working to debut ranked choice voting in several cities and counties across the state.
Ranked choice voting is an electoral system in which voters rank their preferred candidates in order. If one candidate receives the majority of first-choice votes, they are declared the winner. If not, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and their votes are distributed to other candidates based on second-choice placements. The process is repeated until one candidate amasses the majority.
This year, Moab residents will elect a new mayor and potentially two new councilmembers. Both Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus and Councilmember Mike Duncan have announced they are not running for re-election; Karen Guzman-Newton will be up for re-election.
The city council elected to participate in the pilot program, along with 15 other cities across the state, to reduce the cost of elections and increase efficiency by only holding a general election, rather than both a primary and general election.
Utah County will administer vote counting and signature verification for Moab City, allowed by recently passed HB75, as Grand County is not yet equipped to facilitate a ranked choice voting election. HB75 allows cities outside of a jurisdiction where a county clerk does not have the resources to run a ranked choice system to contract with another county; in this case, Grand County will contract with Utah County for the 2021 election.
Ballots will be mailed directly to the Utah County clerk’s office, though Moab City will still offer drop boxes and in-person voting, where Utah County representatives will assist. Moab City’s contract with Utah County for the upcoming 2021 election is still in the draft phase.
The Utah state legislature first allowed ranked choice voting for municipalities in 2019. Utah County administered ranked choice voting elections in Payson and Vineyard with success. The Utah County Elections Team reported that of logged phone calls about those 2019 elections, less than 1% of callers asked questions about the ranked choice voting system.
Before that 2019 election cycle, the elections team created a sample ranked choice voting ballot polling retirement homes and assisted living centers in Provo about residents’ favorite national park.
“We found that the ranked choice ballot itself was clear and intuitive enough that it undermined any confusion,” said Daniels. “The ballot itself is very intuitive for voters; this idea that ranked choice voting is inherently confusing, we just couldn’t find evidence for.”
The Utah County Elections Team stressed that all Utah counties are already equipped with the materials needed to administer ranked choice voting elections.
Ranked choice voting ballots are still paper and scanned on-site with equipment used in past elections; a grid with candidates on the vertical end and preference ranking on the horizontal end allows voters to fill in their choices accordingly. The ranked choice system does require an additional piece of software to tabulate the votes, which has been tested in a voter system test laboratory and certified by the state lieutenant governor’s office to be used in conjunction with existing ballot scanner systems.
Utah cities and counties primarily vote by mail. As such, the ranked choice system will cut down on postage and administrative costs, since the system eliminates the need for a primary election. The cost for ranked choice voting ballots and their postage is capped at $2.25 per active registered voter, with approximately 3,000 active registered voters in Moab City. The cost of a single ranked choice election would be around $6,750 for the city in conjunction with Utah County, much less than the Grand County estimated cost of $15,000 for the general election plus additional costs for a primary election.
“Rather than having to run a primary election, where you’ve got fewer voters actually voting, you’ve got one election on the general election date. At that election, you have more voters and you’re saving the cost of running a primary election,” explained Kory Holdaway, a former state legislator and current owner of KMH Government Affairs.
Since there are two city council seats up for grabs this election cycle, more than four city council candidates would necessitate a primary. Similarly, more than two mayoral candidates would require a primary. The city will use ranked choice ballots for those situations if they arise, but if only four city council candidates and only two mayoral candidates file, the election would run as usual without need for ranked choice. It is possible to mix and match voting systems within the same ballot.
The City of Moab will still handle candidate filing, which has been moved from June to August 10 through 17 this year. After candidates file, Moab City will design the paper ballot with Utah County’s help and mail them to voters. Ballots will then be returned and verified before they are tabulated through the ranked choice voting software.
“If Moab wants to try out ranked choice voting, we will do whatever is necessary to help you be successful, even if Grand County isn’t ready to support it,” said Daniels. He hopes that in future elections, Grand County will be equipped and prepared to facilitate its own ranked choice elections.
“We’re very committed to helping other counties learn this process and to implement it well. I’m confident that any county clerk in the state of Utah can do exactly what we’re doing,” Daniels concluded.