Lawmakers Mulling Instant Runoff Voting in Primary Elections

Only 14 percent of Utahns want political party delegates to decide who goes on the general election ballot for an office, should no primary candidate get 50 percent of the vote, a new UtahPolicy poll shows.

But there is an alternative, UtahPolicy is told, to the convention delegate decision that some legislators are exploring in the 2015 Legislature’s final days: An instant primary election runoff.

It is not a primary election route Utahns know much about since it is not used in this state now. But instant runoff elections are used in other areas of the U.S.

Several sources tell UtahPolicy that some lawmakers are talking to county clerks whether they have the ability in their electronic voting machines to accommodate such an alternative.

It can be a bit complicated in practice, but put simply when you vote in a primary election – which are now run by county clerks with oversight from the Utah Elections Office – you would cast your ballot first for your No.1 choice, then you would say who your second, third and so forth preferences are.

If no candidate, on the first round of primary ballot counting, got 50 percent of the vote plus one, then the voters’ second choices would be counted, with the bottom vote-getter being dropped from the counting, and so on until one candidate ended up with a majority of the votes.

Instant runoff balloting does away with having to conduct a second primary election, and avoids the cost associated with that.

It also allows for a primary winner to be announced on primary election night, so he or she can immediately begin campaigning for the final election – and not give other parties’ nominees a head start in the general election race as a second primary election is held in one party’s race.

HB313 should be debated sometime Monday on the House floor, as legislators work into the evening to get as many bills sponsored by their members debated before turning their attention to the other body’s legislation before adjournment Thursday night.

Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, has been pushing the idea this session that the plurality issue – raised by the passage of SB54 last year – be settled in some way this session.

Hughes addressed his 63-member GOP caucus in an open meeting Monday afternoon.

He read from a YouTube recording from the rare legislative Sunday news conference of a year ago where the SB54 “grand compromise” with the Count My Vote citizen initiative supporters was announced.

Hughes, then as the House majority whip, attended that press conference.

And he told his caucus Monday that it should be clear that it is appropriate, and is not a violation of the SB54 compromise, for the Legislature – even this session – to pass a law that dealt with the plurality issue.

That may be true, but several Count My Vote leaders have said publicly that HB313 violates the spirit of SB54 – because it was always believed that a candidate could bypass a party’s caucus/delegate/convention process and seek to advance through the party’s primary election by gathering voter signatures.

Under SB54 more than two candidates could be on the ballot – thus opening up the possibility of a multi-candidate field not end with one getting more than 50 percent of the primary vote.

House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said he has personal experience in a crowded primary election.

Several years ago when Taylorsville incorporated and became a city, there were five places to be filled on the new City Council.

Dunnigan was one of the 67 candidates seeking those five seats – and some (including Dunnigan) won with just 2.5 percent of the vote.

It is unlikely there would be 67 candidates on a party’s primary ballot for one office under SB54 in a partisan primary.

But Hughes told his caucus that, like other states, it may soon be the case in Utah where a candidate can hire a firm to collect the number of voter signatures he would need to get on his party’s primary ballot.

And if enough candidates did that, then there could certainly be more than two candidates on the ballot.

The more candidates who appear on the primary ballot, “that inherently dilutes the vote” of each voter, said Hughes.

While only 14 percent of Utahns and only 14 percent of Republican Utahns, favor HB313, the new poll shows, there is majority support among both groups to have some kind of voter runoff primary election – and not turn the final nomination decision back to the party delegates.