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Holladay Journal

Clock runs out on Holladay’s chance to participate in ranked choice voting

May 26, 2021 12:53PM ● By Zak Sonntag

Ranked choice voting works a little different from traditional voting. (Pixabay)

By Zak Sonntag | [email protected]

The right to vote is often thought of as the most cherished institution of democracy. At the same time, however, it embodies a glaring contradiction because it seems to inspire reverence and disenchantment in equal measure; some complain that election winners are bought and paid for, and others lament casting “wasted” ballots. Some citizens disenfranchise themselves and decline to vote at all. Others vote grudgingly for candidates they scarcely admire by the logic that they are less horrible. Lately, albeit, there is a movement brewing which hopes to restore confidence by instituting a new method of electing representatives—ranked choice voting—a method meant to weed out the uglier aspects of campaign politics by allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference, rather than pick one contender per contest. 

After the success of a small pilot program, the Utah legislature in 2020 passed a bill that facilitated and encouraged cities and towns statewide to implement ranked choice voting in their 2021 municipal election cycle as part of an expanded pilot program. Seven counties and 23 municipalities across the state are making the switch. The City of Holladay was poised to be the 24th. But the City Council slept on the issue and found themselves unprepared for the May 10 deadline, and therefore leave in place for now the traditional non-partisan primary election system to be used this year for the city’s biggest race in more than half a decade—an open and at large mayoral contest.

“I’m worried about moving forward so quickly, especially because we’ve got a lot going on with the property tax this fall. I would be worried that people might feel we were not being transparent because all the voices I’ve heard from came within the last 24 hours. I don’t feel that we’ve given this issue the time it deserves to make an informed decision,” said Councilmember Matt Durham.

Despite the council’s ultimate inaction on the issue, a review of the public hearing on the ranked choice phenomenon gives a sense of the greater community’s differing attitudes toward the program, along with what’s at stake and where the city may ultimately end up. Amongst members there was an agreement that the ranked system has merit and potential; the punt appeared to be more political necessity than anything else, as leaders believed it’d be a folly to promote a big new program with minimal due-diligence in a year when the legislative calendar is already crowded by another novelty—a planned truth in taxation process—which will absorb every last dime of the council’s community capital if they’re to muscle through an anticipated rate hike.

“With a storm water rate increase and a [potential] tax increase, there is a lot that the city is going to have to explain to its residents. The workload for the educational and engagement aspects of this year are already big,” explained city manager Gina Chamness during the hearing.

Outreach and education are critical aspects of governance, and the council is deliberate in its efforts to improve public relations and its ability to educate. Good public relations have been a top priority for the council, more so since its ignominious defeat by referendum in one attempted rezone of the former Cottonwood Mall site. Hence, they move with caution and care for big issues.

“We need to vet this issue further. I don’t like to have a public hearing and vote on the same night.” said Sabrina Petersen. 

To the city’s credit, residents appreciate the council’s commitment to diligence. Yet some community members have asked why, if the council is so committed to thorough public process, they waited until the midnight hour to hold a public hearing on the ranked choice measure. The council suggested it’s partly due to a lack of clarity from the legislature.

“It concerns me that public process seemed to be left out of the equation in terms of what the legislature required here,” said Councilmember Paul Fotheringham.

But the state’s ranked choice voting liaison, Stan Lockhart, shot back with a quick rebuttal, explaining that with such laws there is always an “implied public hearing,” insinuating that if the council was serious about it, the delay was a rookie mistake.

Fotheringham responded, “I agree that this proposal has a lot of merit, so maybe this is on us for not scheduling the public hearing more in advance of the vote. I’ve had so many emails come just today, and I haven’t even been able to review those yet. Additionally, we were only able to hear from those [organizations] who support it. I won’t say I’ll never vote for it, but today it’s going to be a no.”

Fotheringham’s no-vote was welcomed by residents like Kris Kimball, who expressed concern that the ranking system would eliminate a primary elections in favor of instant run offs. 

“It takes time for individuals to vet candidates, which is why we have a primary where we have a choice between a smaller number of candidates. With ranked choice voting we might have to decide between as many as 16 running for office. We don’t have the time. That’s why we have a republic and why we’ve set up the current process. I don’t want to see our election turned into a horse race where I have to place a vote on each one and hope that my ballot makes it through to the finish line,” said Kimball during the public hearing.

For others, eliminating the primary election is one of the ranked system’s greatest advantages, because it shortens campaign-cycles and theoretically encourages candidates to speak to broader voting blocks, in contrast to the primary systems that tend to reward candidates who appeal to smaller constituent bases further from the center and closer to the political poles. Though it is possible to have a ranked-choice primary and general, all Utah cities so far participating are foregoing the primary in favor of the “instant-runoff” single election.

“The advantages are that ranked choice will be more civil, more economical, and it amplifies the voters voice, because it gives them more input even if their first choice doesn’t work. It eliminates the ‘spoiler effect,’ like we saw in the Provo mayoral primary, where the winner didn’t get a majority vote,” said Hughes Canyon Drive resident Jane Harrison, addressing the council in April, ahead of the public hearing.

While the council agreed about the general merits of the system, some were more gung-ho than others, including Councilmember Dan Gibbons, who said he was “all in,” even as he concedes he may “not have been elected in either of my two races with ranked choice voting.”

For Gibbons, the ranking system helps address extremity creep as well as the cost-prohibitive reality of running for office, and thereby would invite in a greater pool of public servant talent.

“It’s at least six months out of your life to run for office, and that’s great if your wealthy, or retired, or have connections. But there are women and men with families who have to work a lot and don’t have the wherewithal in money or time, and we’ll need those people on the council,” Gibbons said. “We want bright, hardworking people in these seats in the future. Right now the system is tilted in favor of retired, wealthy people. In my district race, there was close to $30,000 spent. I don’t know it’s a good thing to spend that amount of money, whereas with ranked choice voting we’ll have a shorter, more targeted campaign season where a message can get out.” 

For at least one member of the council, the current campaign standard, though challenging, is not something to lament.

“I ran for election when I was 42 years old, and I campaigned for six months with a two year old in the back seat. My child sat in his car seat and napped or watched a movie. And it was a great experience for my family. I was hungry, and I wanted it,” said Councilmember Sabrina Petersen, nodding to the idea that the arduousness of the process itself functions as a vetting machine whereby only the most determined and competent can survive.

Councilmember Drew Quinn was an early supporter of the ranking process, and initially leaned in favor of a yes vote on the basis of the upcoming Holladay city mayoral race, which is an at large seat whose contenders are liable to spend more money and time then standard district races.

“I understand there’s a lot going on. However, we have a mayor’s race coming up, and that’s a wide-open race. Ranked choice voting makes a lot more sense with an open mayoral race because the entire city will be voting,” Quinn said during an April work session.

Yet Quinn, who was “on the fence” until the hearing’s final close, eventually conceded the strategic challenges to implementation on short notice could offset the system’s promised benefits.

“One of the concerns I have is that it may be a more difficult system for people who don’t have time to learn how it works, or non-English speakers, and I don’t want to see anyone disenfranchised. The idea of shortening the campaign window can be a blessing and a curse. This is a hard one,” Quinn said. 

Residents who spoke during the public hearing were equally divided between those for and against implementing the pilot. One resident who was grateful the council took a pass is Ron Hilton. “My concern with ranked choice is that psychologically it’s hard for a voter to get behind more than one candidate,” Hilton said. “You’ve got your favorite and you don’t think about the others, and therefore people will not fulfill their ballots. And in an extreme case, it would devolve right back into a plurality ballot. So personally, I would go slow, because it could create more problems than it solves.”

Again, liaison Stan Lockhart was sure to parry such concerns.

“In regard to voter education, opponents of ranked choice will say that voters are too stupid to figure it out. The truth is citizens everyday have to rank their choices of preference: what we’re going to do this afternoon as a family, what restaurant to go to, what stores we shop at. Ranking choices is not tough for voters to figure out. What’s important is that they know it is a ranking system,” Lockhart said.

Still, some found the comparison of democracy to traditional consumer practices disingenuous.

“The idea that voting for a candidate is equivalent to trying to choose a place to eat? That’s kind of terrifying. How can to take this heavy responsibility [of voting] and think about it in comparison to a place to eat?” said resident Kris Kimball.

Nonetheless, there is cause to suspect that ranked choice voting may be the inevitable way of the future. Robert Dahle, serving his final months as mayor, said during an April work session, “My own personal feeling is that it’s going to be the direction everyone transitions to down the road. So the question is: what is the council’s appetite to pursue it and execute it this year?”

After taking into account the year’s other legislative initiatives, the council concluded their appetites would be sufficiently sated without an additional issue like ranked choice implementation. Plenty on the plate already.