County Policy Panel: How Utah counties are reducing the risk of election fraud . . . Pros, cons of ranked-choice voting

Editor’s Note: This is a new monthly feature where leaders from the Utah Association of Counties answer public policy questions. This month’s feature focuses on two election-related questions.

Written by panelists Ricky Hatch (Weber County Clerk/Auditor), Sherrie Swensen (Salt Lake County Clerk), Ryan Cowley (Weber County Elections Director), and Curtis Koch (Davis County Clerk/Auditor).

Question 1: There has been significant national attention given to the election process during COVID-19, where in-person voting may be restricted.  What efforts are being made in Utah to ensure maximum voter participation while reducing the risk of election fraud with an “all-mail” election?

The balance of maximizing participation while reducing the risk of fraud is not new.  Fortunately, Utah has a lot of experience implementing by-mail elections.  Mailing a ballot to every current, active, registered voter is the ultimate way to maximize turnout.  Vote-by-mail nearly doubles the turnout of low-turnout elections, such as primaries, municipals, and special elections.  In high-turnout elections, studies show that voting by mail increases turnout anywhere from four to nine percentage points.

The risk of fraud is reduced on several fronts:


  1. Utah has current, accurate voter rolls.  With vote by mail, less than 2% of ballots are returned undeliverable.  Every time someone gets a driver’s license or changes their driver’s license address, their voter registration is updated.  Clerks also use the National Change of Address program, receive updates from the Dept. of Vital Statistics, and check the local obituaries.
  2. Every voter is verified either by their Utah driver license/ID or their Social Security number before receiving a ballot.
  3. To prevent fraud, trained election judges verify EVERY voter’s signature – not just a sample.  Our statewide voter database prevents voters from voting more than once.  We check for voters being registered in other states.  Return envelopes have unique, ballot-specific IDs known only to our voter registration database.  Ballots have unique characteristics that are difficult to duplicate.  They are always handled with at least two election judges present, and reconciliations are performed throughout the process.
  4. The most common fraud is voter registration fraud – people registering at an address where they don’t live, not updating their address and still voting, etc.- not voting fraud.  Regardless of the type of fraud, election officials, county attorneys, and the FBI are keen on identifying, preventing, and prosecuting election fraud.

Question 2: The Republican State Convention used Ranked Choice Voting as a new method to select candidates. Do you see this as a potential new voting method for mass-elections? What are the pros and cons of this approach?

Using a voting method for 5,000 party delegates participating in a political convention election is a good test but is still vastly different than using it for the full 1.6 million voting populace.

Ranked Choice Voting – Pros
Plurality – Advocates say Ranked Choice Voting ensures a “true majority” winner, eliminating plurality winners.

Civility – Advocates say Ranked Choice Voting encourages more civil campaigns, motivating candidates to appeal to a broader spectrum of voters.

Cost Savings – If Utah replaced primary elections with a single Ranked Choice general election, the state and counties would save approximately $2.9 million per year.

Ranked Choice Voting – Cons

Is Ranked Choice Voting necessary?  Only 5.6% of Utah’s state and county races had more than two candidates (  Further, of the 90 ranked-choice races held over the last 11 years in Maine, Minneapolis, and San Francisco, 97% of the winners of the first round were also the final winners (100% in the Utah GOP convention).  Ranked Choice Voting would apply to under 6 percent of Utah’s elections, and of that 6 percent, only 3 percent of the races would have a different outcome.

Doesn’t really solve plurality – Not all voters rank all candidates, which could lead to a false majority (a majority of the voters who ranked candidates in the last round, but still a plurality of voters who voted in the first round).  Since so few of Utah’s races have more than two candidates, a runoff process or a top-two primary option are attractive alternatives to Ranked Choice Voting.

Doesn’t really increase civility – Delegates for the Utah GOP, which used Ranked Choice Voting in their convention, still received several uncivil mailers and phone calls.  Will Ranked Choice Voting really stop these negative attacks?  Lawsuits in Maine and aggressive campaigns in recent San Francisco Mayoral elections prove that hopes of more civil and trusted elections are tenuous, at best.

Complexity, ballot length, and a new, unsupervised role for the Lieutenant Governor’s office – Ranked Choice Voting fundamentally alters the look, feel and length of the ballot.  It alters how votes are counted, who counts them, and transforms the Lieutenant Governor’s role from elections oversight to vote tabulation.  It alters the pre- and post-election audit processes.  It complicates instructions for voters and will increase the number of spoiled ballots and ballots that need to be manually adjudicated.