Smooth sailing, mixed opinions during Heber City’s first election using ranked choice voting
Instead of the traditional head-to-head model, Heber City residents ranked city council candidates in order of preference this election. While the format eliminated the need for a primary election and saved the city money, community reactions were mixed.
Ranked choice voting first gained traction in Denmark in the late 1800s and in the United States in the early 1900s. On March 16 of this year, Heber City Council voted to try the new system in 2021.
“We found a lot of people excited to use it,” Heber City Manager Matt Brower said. “I think people appreciated the opportunity to cast votes for more than simply one of their favorite candidates. They could actually rank them from one through four.”
Ballots listed the four city council candidates and asked voters to rank them in order of preference. If a voter’s first preference didn’t win, their vote went to their second choice, and so on.
Recorder Trina Cooke, the city’s top election official, said not every voter approved. Some voiced concerns that their vote wouldn’t count in the same way as usual, they had less opportunity to make an informed decision on candidates, or they just didn’t want to change from the traditional system.
“We heard pushback,” Cooke said. “The first day ballots were made, someone was in my office saying they didn’t like it, didn’t approve. We received public comments at the council meetings from people who disapproved. The people who were so upset about it, I wish they had just reached out a little bit more and looked at facts instead of not voting, because I believe there were some of those as well. We’ll see if it happens again.”
One thing not in question is the price tag - ranked choice voting is cheaper. The city didn’t have to hold a primary election to narrow the initial field of eight candidates since ranking choices inherently results in a majority winner after one count, no matter how many competitors.
This saved the city thousands of dollars, according to Cooke. While the city hasn’t assessed 2021 costs yet, the 2019 election cost almost $28,000, and she says ballots account for most of that. She estimated the city saved 40% up to half in costs this year.
In the end, financial advisor Scott Phillips and Friends of Heber Valley nonprofit member Yvonne Barney were elected to the council, defeating incumbent Councilman Wayne Hardman and laboratory scientist Bryce Hoover. They’ll be sworn in on January 4.
While some voters didn’t support ranked choice voting, many did, including Adam Thompson. He ranked Hoover first and Barney second. When Hoover finished last, his ballot ended up supporting Barney, his second choice.
“I think ranked choice voting is a good idea,” Thompson said. “It allows people to vote for their preferred candidates. A lot of people fall on that false binary of, ‘Well, if you don’t vote for X, then you’re voting for Y,’ and that’s not necessarily true. It does allow for candidates who have different voices and different opinions to succeed, where people may not have put them on the ballot in the first place.”
Some voters said they found the system confusing. According to Wasatch County Clerk Joey Granger, who oversaw the processing of all ballots in the county, a high number of incorrectly marked city ballots showed not everyone understood how to fill them out.
About 400 ballots had to be reviewed individually to judge the voter’s intended response because the counting machine couldn’t read them. This created about two hours of delay in releasing the unofficial results on election night.
In its first year, based on results of voters’ first preferences, the rank-based counting didn’t result in an outcome different from what the traditional method would’ve produced
In the first round of counting, Phillips was elected with 39% of votes, and Barney won the second seat with 24%.
Ranked choice results showed Phillips ended up with a 58% share for the first seat, and Barney ultimately got 51% for the second seat over Hardman.
The March decision to use ranked choice voting was for this year only. The city council will now decide whether to use the method in future elections.
For more on ranked choice voting and detailed voting results, visit Heber City's elections page.