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Deseret News

Utah GOP alters vote method
By Bob Bernick, Jr.
May 8, 2002

Utah Republicans may be conservative, but they aren't afraid of change - at least when it comes to a new way of voting.

At Saturday's state Republican Convention, the 3,480 delegates will vote in the three U.S. House races using what's known as a preferential ballot. Delegates in the House races will pick, on a single ballot, candidates as their first, second, third choices and so on down the ballot.

In the case of the packed 2nd District race, they will actually rank - if they so chose - 12 candidates.

In the first round of counting, the candidate with the fewest number of ballots listing him as the delegates' first choice is eliminated. Those ballots are redistributed to the candidates who are those delegates' second preferences. The counting/elimination process continues, and if at any time one candidate gets 60 percent of the vote he is declared the nominee. After the last round of counting, two candidates will remain. If one has 60 percent of the vote, he's the nominee. Otherwise those last two candidates go to a June 25 primary.

The fact that candidates know they face a preferential ballot has resulted in more gentlemanly campaigning, believes GOP state executive director Scott Simpson.

"Everyone wants to be ranked first, of course. But it is also very important to be ranked second, third, or ranked as high as you can be," he says.

And so candidates are timid about criticizing any other candidate, for if you bad-mouth a candidate to a delegate who may be putting that candidate first, the delegate is not likely to put you second, or third, or fourth. He may not vote for you at all, in any ranking, which is also allowed, said Simpson.

When the National Rifle Association sent out a letter to all 1st District delegates criticizing candidate Rep. Kevin Garn on one of his state House votes, candidate Rob Bishop, a gun-rights lobbyist, quickly and firmly distanced himself from the letter. "You could see by Bishop's reaction to the NRA letter" that candidates are worried about being tagged with negative campaigning in combination with the preferential ballot, said Simpson.

In any case, while preferential voting has been used in some county party races before, this will be the first time it will be used in a major party state convention.

It's the wave of the future, some say. And it's possible you could see such voting in municipal or other races over the next 10 years.

Preferential balloting, used in Australia for years, has a number of advantages, proponents say. The system, depending on how its used, could save taxpayers the cost of a primary election (which ranges from $600,000 to $800,000 statewide in Utah). And, some argue, it gives middle-of-the-road candidates in a big candidate field a better shot at winning. For example, a number of political observers believe Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson sits in office today because in the 2001 city primary election two moderates - Dave Jones and Jim Bradley - split the moderate vote, letting Anderson, a more liberal candidate, and Stuart Reid, the more conservative candidate, take first and second place. In the final election, Anderson drew more of the Jones/Bradley support and topped Reid. A preferential primary ballot may have advanced Jones or Bradley into a final election against Anderson or Reid, and a more moderate candidate may have won the mayoralship.

Going low-tech and low-cost, state GOP leaders decided not to spend $30,000 to have a professional voting firm handle the preferential balloting Saturday, or spend the time and money to re- program punch-card vote counting machines. Instead, "we're doing this in-house and manually," says Simpson. Ballots will be hand counted each round, with candidates' poll watchers making sure everything is proper, said Simpson.

Second District candidate Steve Harmsen, a Salt Lake County Councilman who has stood for election off and on for 30 years, thinks the new balloting is the right way to go. "I like it. But people have to understand that, given 12 candidates (in the 2nd District), it's highly unlikely a delegate's first choice will come out of the convention. It could be a delegate's 2nd or 3rd choice that comes out," says Harmsen. "I understand how they are going to count the ballots. They have their act together. I think it will work."

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