SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) — A number of Utah’s local races for the Nov. 21 election will feature ranked-choice voting — but what is that, and how does it work when you sit down with your ballot?

All information in this post comes from State of Utah, Utah Republican Party, and local municipal sources. Note that this is just a primer to give you an idea of what you need to know when you vote this fall.

If you’re looking for videos or charts that also explain ranked-choice voting, check out some of the following:

OK, what is ranked-choice voting, and why are we doing it?

Normally, when you sit down with your ballot and you look at a race, you simply pick your favorite candidate, and you’re done. But with ranked-choice voting, you are instead asked to take all the candidates and put them in the order you like them.

You have to have more than two candidates to use ranked-choice voting, and the biggest thing it does is eliminate runoff elections.

For instance, let’s say there are four candidates running for a city council seat — Bill, Susie, Jim, and Liz. In a normal election, you would simply pick your favorite of the four. At the end of the night, the results might look like this:

  • Bill — 2%
  • Susie — 31%
  • Jim — 27%
  • Liz — 40%

In a normal election, since none of the candidates got more than 50% of a vote, you would have to hold a second election — a runoff — to see who wins the seat. Liz and Susie are going to a runoff under the traditional model. Because as things stand right now, though Liz has the most votes, she only has 40% — which means that 60% of voters didn’t want her to be on the council. Those voters need another chance to pick a representative they like.

All of that changes under a ranked voting system. Instead of picking your single favorite, you rank all four candidates according to the order you like them. Maybe you really want Liz to win, but you’d be okay if Jim won. But you really don’t like Bill or Susie.

In ranked-choice, you would sit down with your ballot and rank all four candidates from 1 to 4.

For voters, that’s all that needs to be done. Mark your favorite candidate as No. 1, your second as No. 2, and so on. That means each candidate will get a certain number of first-place votes, a certain number of second-place votes, and so and so forth.

All of those second-, third- and fourth-place votes will be used to break ties, eliminating the need for a runoff election, which means the whole process saves money and more clearly shows who voters actually like. Another benefit is that it ends the “spoiler effect” by making sure that a longshot candidate doesn’t take away votes from a candidate who has more mainstream support. It also forces candidates to appeal to the entire voter base instead of just “energizing” their supporters. To win, you need to get a fair number of second-place votes.

But how do you count votes under ranked-choice voting?

Just like any other election, if a candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, they automatically win. However, if no one gets over 50%, the last-place candidate is immediately eliminated. In our example, that’s Bill, who only got 2% of the vote. You’re out, Bill.

In a normal election, Bill’s supporters would have to go to the polls a second time during a runoff election to vote for someone else for their vote to count. But under ranked-choice voting, there’s no need for a runoff. All of Bill’s supporters’ second-, third- and fourth-place votes are given to the remaining candidates.

For example, Bill voters also seemed to like Liz and Jim but really disliked Susie. So in the “instant runoff” under ranked-choice, Liz and Jim get a boost from Bill’s supporters, and Susie doesn’t do so well.

So now, splitting up Bill’s 2% of the vote, the new tally looks like this:

  • Susie — 31%
  • Jim — 28% (+1%)
  • Liz — 41% (+1%)

Liz is still in the lead. Now that we’ve distributed the votes from Bill’s supporters, we check again — does any candidate have over 50% of the vote? If the answer is no, then the next lowest candidate is eliminated. Sorry, Jim, but in this example, you’re out.

We repeat the process with Jim’s supporters, with all of their second-, third- and fourth-place choices getting redistributed. In our example, Jim’s supporters don’t like Liz, but they can live with Susie. Of Jim’s 28% of the vote, Susie gets a 23% bump, while Liz only picks up the remaining 5%. Susie gets a big boost from Jim’s supporters, and this time, Liz doesn’t do so well.

We end the election looking like this:

  • Susie — 54% (+23%) WINNER!
  • Liz — 46% (+5%)

In this way, even though Bill’s and Jim’s supporters didn’t get their guy in office, they still got to vote on their “next favorite candidate,” which means their vote still counted — and statistically speaking, Susie was more actually liked more overall than the other candidates. While you may not get the representation you wanted, you have a better chance to get your “second-favorite,” generally speaking.

The process, however, works the same if there are more candidates. If there are 10 candidates on the ballot, the process continues with the person in last place eliminated until someone has more than 50% of the vote.

What if I don’t want to do all that?

You’re not required to rank everyone on the ballot. If you still only want to vote for your favorite candidate and be done, you are well within your rights to do that. Nothing changes for you as a voter. However, if your candidate doesn’t win, you could end up with your LEAST favorite candidate as your representative.

By ranking each person on the ballot, you actually get a greater say in who gets the seat if your favorite doesn’t win. In other words, it’s in your self-interest to rank candidates under the new system.

However, you aren’t required to do it. And you’re not required to rank every candidate. If you only want to pick your first and second favorites, you’re okay to do that, too. The system is very flexible.

Why should we change to the new system at all?

In addition to getting a statistically better idea of who voters actually like, ranked-choice means there only has to be one election. That’s a definite financial savings for election officials and candidates. It means a shorter election season, so voters aren’t as burned out by a half-year’s worth of campaigning and feel so disgusted by the end of the process that they don’t vote at all.

It also means candidates may need to be more civil so they can appeal to a larger swath of voters. People who are turned off by aggressive candidates may rank them lower, meaning their bids may be less successful. It also allows candidates to get some support from voters who otherwise might never vote for them. Maybe Susie didn’t get as many first-place votes as Liz, but she got more support from Bill’s and Jim’s supporters. That’s hard to do if Susie doesn’t campaign to ALL voters so she gets enough second-, third- and fourth-place votes.

In short, it changes the game for elections.

In 2020, for example, current Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Diedre Henerson won the Republican primary with only 36.15% of the vote. That means 63.85% of Republican voters didn’t want Cox/Henderson to move on to the general election in November, and yet, under the more traditional voting system, they did. That meant a large majority of Republicans got someone in office they didn’t intend to vote for.

Cox ended up winning over Democratic opponent Karina Brown with 63% of the vote in the general election, but a ranked-choice voting system may have determined an entirely different winner at the primary level, meaning it’s possible (though not certain) Cox/Henderson wouldn’t have ended up on the November 2020 ballot at all.

How did all this come about in the first place?

In 2018, the Utah Legislature passed an act that allows cities to try out ranked-choice voting. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and 67-3 in the House. Then-Gov. Gary Herbert signed it into law in March 2018.

Some cities started using ranked choice quickly — and according to the State of Utah, voters found it easy to do and decided they’d like to see it continue. (See the charts below for more information.)

In 2020, both Republicans and Democrats adopted ranked-choice for their state and county conventions. Again, a majority of voters liked the system.

Earlier this year, the Salt Lake City Council passed a resolution putting ranked-choice voting in place for this fall’s ballot for municipal offices. So when you vote this fall, you’ll be using the ranked-choice system to determine your favorites for the mayor’s race and the outstanding city council races.