Rep. Laura Sibilia
Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, speaks on the House floor in 2017. Photo by Michael Dougherty/VTDigger

[T]he upcoming legislative session will see a push among some lawmakers to change the way Vermonters cast their ballots during elections.

Legislators in the House and Senate plan on introducing bills that would institute a ranked-choice voting system in Vermont.

Champions of ranked-choice voting argue the system leads to a more accurate reflection of public opinion in election results, by requiring winners to receive the majority of voter support or face a “run off”.

Under a ranked-choice system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate is selected as the top preference by at least 50 percent of voters, then the ranked-choice system comes into play.

In this no-majority scenario, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. The second choice selections on the ballots are then distributed to the remaining contenders. This process is repeated until a candidate secures a majority of the vote.

“It just kind of tallies the will of the people much more accurately than the current system we have because it allows people to really make a statement about every candidate,” Rep. Laura Sibilia said of ranked-choice voting.

Sibilia, an independent from Dover, plans on spearheading an effort in the House to pass a ranked-choice bill into law. Sen. Chris Pearson, D/P-Chittenden, will also be introducing a a ranked-choice bill in the Senate.

The system could improve voter engagement and the tenor of political campaigns in Vermont, Sibilia says.

Under a ranked choice system, candidates in a crowded field are not only competing for first choice votes, but also second and third place rankings.

Chris Pearson
Sen. Chris Pearson, D/P-Chittenden. Photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

This would make it harder for candidates to use “generalized sound bites” and “partisan talking points” in campaigns, according to Sibilia.

“It requires the candidates to behave seriously,” she said. “You can’t turn the voters off too much. You’ve got to watch yourself.”

Pearson said a ranked choice system would allow candidates to focus more on issues and less on party affiliation, particularly among candidates outside the two major parties.

“Candidates who are running as an independent spend a lot of time explaining how they are interested in operating outside of the two party system,” he said. “I think that voters and candidates would rather talk about healthcare and climate change and property taxes.”

Maine is the only state with a ranked choice system, which was approved by voters in a 2016 referendum. Several municipalities across the country including San Francisco, Minneapolis and Cambridge, Massachusetts, also use ranked choice systems.

In 2007, the Legislature passed a bill that would have established ranked-choice voting in Vermont congressional races. However, then-governor Jim Douglas, a Republican, vetoed the measure.

Between 2006 and 2010, Burlington used a ranked choice system known as instant-runoff voting. It was repealed by voters in 2010, after Bob Kiss, a Progressive, was re-elected as mayor in 2009.

Kiss won the five-way race without receiving the highest number of first-preference ballots, after other candidates were eliminated from the race.

Kurt Wright speaks during a council meeting on December 10, 2018. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Kurt Wright, a former Republican representative who is now the Burlington City Council President, received the most first-preference ballots — about 33 percent of those cast — while Kiss only received about 29 percent.

But because Wright didn’t have a majority in the first round, Kiss was able to close in and win the race after two other candidates were eliminated. After Kiss’s election, there was a successful push to overturn instant-runoff voting in 2010.

“I think people just saw the result,” Wright said. “They saw, wow, a candidate that gets the most traditional votes can not end up winning in this system.”

Wright, who lost reelection to the House in November, said he hopes lawmakers decide not to pass a statewide ranked-choice system. He said that in Burlington, ranked-choice failed to boost voter turnout and encouraged candidates to be overly cautious.

“It produced a really vanilla type campaign. There was still the negativity, but people were afraid to take really strong stands on issues,” he said.

Sibilia thinks it’s possible that the Legislature could pass the bill within two years, but she said there’s a fair amount of public education about ranked-choice that should take place before it becomes law.

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories...