Lawmakers consider overhauling Utah elections to fix the ‘plurality’ issue caused by Utah’s signature path

Utah Capitol 02

Could Utah elections move to a top-two or “jungle” primary format?

That was one idea discussed by the Government Operations Interim Committee on Wednesday to address the so-called “plurality” issue that is a result of the addition of the signature path for candidates to reach the primary ballot. Before the signature route, party conventions would send no more than two candidates to a primary election, ensuring that one of them would win the nomination with a majority of the vote. Now, with potentially 3 or more candidates on a primary ballot, the nomination could be secured with less than a majority.

Lawmakers also discussed holding a runoff election if no candidate wins a majority in a primary election, or implementing Ranked Choice Voting, also known as an “instant runoff” election. 

“The idea of plurality seems concerning,” said Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, “But I haven’t found a case of this occurring.”

Ranked Choice Voting does what it sounds like it does. Voters rank the candidates in an election from top to bottom. If none of those candidates secure a majority in the first round, the candidate with the lowest vote total is eliminated, and the votes for that candidate are then redistributed to the voters second choice and the ballots are totaled again. The process is repeated until a candidate has a clear majority. Two Utah cities are using RCV in their municipal elections this year as part of a pilot program passed by lawmakers in the 2018 session. Maine is the only state currently using RCV on a statewide basis.

Rep. Marc Roberts, R-Santaquin, said he sees RCV as a logical solution to the issue.

“It’s not without challenges. In my opinion, it’s the best route and is cheaper than a traditional runoff election,” he said. “If we believe we have a representative form of government, we should try to get as close to 50% as we can.”

Thatcher pointed to the 2004 race for the Utah Republican nomination for governor. The party used RCV during the convention to determine their nominee.

“Ranked Choice Voting changes how people campaign,” he said. “That year, the candidate who finished second in the convention was campaigning to be number two on the ballot. They got out of the convention, but got crushed in the primary.”

Jon Huntsman Jr. and Nolan Karras finished one and two in a tight vote in the convention. However, Huntsman ran away with the primary election, security 66% of the vote to just 34% for Karras.

Another idea floated by the committee is a runoff election if no candidate reaches the 50% threshold. Lawmakers previously considered legislation in 2017 that would send the top two candidates in a primary to a runoff if none got at least 35% of the vote. That bar was raised to 40%, but the bill failed to pass. Currently, 10 states use runoff elections. Election officials told lawmakers holding a statewide runoff election would cost the state close to $3 million to administer.

Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, said he didn’t see much urgency in addressing plurality in elections.

“We’ve had a plurality in general elections for quite some time. We seem to be okay with that. Maybe there are some who have a red-blooded American need to have someone above 50%, but I don’t see much difference between a primary and general election.”

There are 4 other states that allow candidates access to the ballot outside of the traditional convention nomination system, but none of them have a mechanism for addressing the plurality issue.

There are 35 states that have no mechanism for resolving elections decided by a plurality rather than a majority.

The committee also voted to delve into the process for filling a mid-term vacancy in Congress. Gov. Gary Herbert vetoed SB123, which set the rules for holding a special election when a member of the House of Representatives is unable to complete their term.

That bill, sponsored by Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, threw the nomination process to political parties but did not have a signature route for candidates to secure a spot on the ballot. Instead, party delegates would send two candidates to a primary, unless there was only one candidate, thus guaranteeing a primary election. Herbert nixed the bill because it lacked the signature route, which is currently in state law.

Committee members voted to establish a working group to come up with two options for addressing congressional vacancies.