A group offered cities money to opt in to ranked choice voting. State elections office warns accepting that is likely illegal

May 7, 2023, 1:00 PM | Updated: Jun 22, 2023, 4:49 pm

Sample ballots are photographed on Feb. 3, 2023, for the three Western Pennsylvania districts that ...

Sample ballots are photographed on Feb. 3, 2023, for the three Western Pennsylvania districts that will choose new State Representatives on Tuesday, Feb. 7. If Democrats sweep all three districts, which they also won in November, it will give them a 102-101 majority and will be the first time in 12 years that Republicans have not been able to determine what gets voted on. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

RIVERTON, Utah — It’s against state law for Utah cities or counties to take any third-party money for elections. But one group, Utah RCV, offered to cover this year’s additional costs for the cities in Salt Lake County to opt into Utah’s ranked choice voting pilot program. 

In response, Utah’s elections office is warning cities that Utah’s new state law passed last year bans them from taking non-government funds for elections.
“We caution cities against accepting such funds from any group or organization, as it likely violates state law,” Utah’s Director of Elections Ryan Cowley told KSL NewsRadio in a statement. 
The offer to Riverton city council was in public setting, at their meeting on April 4. Kelleen Potter, Utah RCV Executive Director, told the city council that in light of the legislature not providing funds for Utah’s ranked choice pilot program, Utah RCV is willing to “cover that gap.”
Potter tells KSL NewsRadio she didn’t know it was illegal when she made the offer.
“At the time, I was not aware of this law. It was passed before I was in this job, and our organization wasn’t familiar with it. It was literally after this meeting someone told me that,” Potter said.
Six Salt Lake county cities opted in to the RCV pilot program for their 2023 elections. It’s not known if they did so because of the offer. It’s also unclear if they’ll be able to opt out of the program if they were banking on that money to help defray costs. Those cities are Millcreek, Salt Lake City, Midvale, South Salt Lake, Kearns, and Magna. 

Utah RCV will ‘cover the gap’

Potter was at the April meeting to present to the Riverton City Council the benefits of the alternative voting method. She was responding to a series of questions from Council member Andy Pierucci who asked her about where Utah RCV’s funding was coming from, and how much of the city’s cost they would cover.

“So right now Salt Lake County is saying it costs them $36,000 more because of the software license, some ballot design time, some legal stuff, and so if it’s divided amongst 36 cities, it would cost them an extra $1,000. If it’s divided amongst three, it would cost them an extra $12,000. So we’re willing to cover that gap,” Potter responded.
Counties administer elections on behalf of the cities in municipal election years, cities then pay the county for their services.

Declining RCV pilot participation 

Utah’s pilot program that allows cities to choose whether to use ranked choice voting has seen dwindling participation this year. 

“There are a couple variables,” Potter said. She cited three cities in Cache County who’s pro-RCV county clerk retired. Others, she said, are believing “negative” stuff people are saying — including an anti ranked choice voting group Potter calls “very loud.”

Utah’s RCV program included 23 cities in 2021. The deadline for cities to opt into program again was May 1, only 12 cities stayed.

Those cities are Millcreek, Genola, Salt Lake City, Midvale, Payson, Vineyard, South Salt Lake, Heber, Kearns, Lehi, Woodland Hills, and Magna.

Riverton was among those who opted out.

Potter says they’re now looking at other ways they can help cities with ranked choice voting that doesn’t include giving “funds.”

The law states, “An election officer may not solicit, accept, or use any funds for an election if those funds are donated by any person other than a government entity.”

 “We’re getting some legal interpretation on that.”

Related: Riverton bows out of ranked choice voting as pilot program proceeds

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A group offered cities money to opt in to ranked choice voting. State elections office warns accepting that is likely illegal