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The winner of the Utah GOP primary for governor will likely prevail with just 35 percent of the total vote. Now, two Utah lawmakers want to change the state’s primary elections to make sure candidates with a broad base of support end up with the nomination.

Rep. Mike Winder R-West Valley City, and Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, are planning to introduce a bill during January’s legislative session to require that all “government-funded” primaries in Utah to use ranked-choice voting beginning May of 2021.

That would be a shift in the way Utah handles their primary elections. Right now, the candidate with the most votes in the primary is the winner, regardless of whether they get a majority of the vote or not. This year the Utah GOP saw three major primary races with four candidates. None of the winners in those races secured a majority to grab the party’s nomination.

Under RCV, voters rank the candidates in order of preference, leading to multiple rounds of counting. Each round, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated, and those voters’ are reallocated to their second choice candidate. That process continues until one candidate has secured a majority of support.

“Ranked-choice voting continues to prove valuable as a way to encourage civil races, allowing voters’ second and third choices to matter,” said Winder. “It’s also a less expensive and clunky alternative to run-off elections.”

“There has to be a mechanism to ensure the candidate with the most support wins,” said Bramble.

SB54, which allows candidates to compete in the primary election by gathering signatures, led to this year’s multiple-candidate primary elections. Lawmakers have previously proposed a run-off election for the top two candidates in those primary elections to ensure the eventual winner secures a majority of support. RCV eliminates the need, and cost, of those runoff elections.

The Utah GOP used RCV at their state convention in April, and a handful of Utah County cities used the process as part of a pilot program for their municipal elections in 2019.

While the switch to RCV may seem like a radical change for voters, Stan Lockhart, chairman of Ranked Choice Voting Utah says it won’t be as big of a shift as one might think.

“What we’re discovering is when people use it, they like it,” he said. “For those that have never used it, they don’t know what they don’t know.”

“The purpose of RCV is to give voters a fuller expression of their will. It allows candidates to get elected who have the broadest and deepest support among the voting public,” he added. 

RCV leads to what Lockhart calls “more civility” in elections. If candidates are vying to be the first, second, or even third choice of voters, they’re less likely to engage in negative campaigning. Candidates are also more likely to focus on issues.

“Instead of talking about your opponent, you have to talk about the issues. It also leads to more voter engagement. Under RCV, a voter has to do a little homework to decide how to allocate their second, third, or fourth choices. So there tends to be a more informed electorate,” he said.