Government & Politics

Burlington considers instant-runoff voting for most city races

Voters arrive to cast their ballots at the St. Mark's Youth Center in Burlington on Town Meeting Day on March 5. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — Burlington will consider bringing back instant runoff ranked-choice voting to municipal elections, with voters considering the question as early as Town Meeting Day 2020. 

Burlington had ranked-choice voting in place from 2006 to 2010 for mayoral elections, using the same instant run-off system that Monday’s resolution proposes for mayoral, city council and school commissioner elections. 

In the IRV system, voters rank candidates in order of preference, and if no candidate receives a majority of votes, the least-popular candidate is eliminated. Votes for that candidate are redistributed to the voter’s second choice, until one candidate receives a majority of the votes. 

The council voted 9-3 to refer the issue to the council’s charter change committee with the goal of that committee returning it to the council by its Dec. 16 meeting to get it on the March ballot. Council President Kurt Wright, R-Ward 4, and Councilors Joan Shannon, D-South District, and Chip Mason, D-Ward 5, voted against the resolution. 

Councilor Jack Hanson, P-East District, was one of the resolution’s five sponsors and said he believed the current voting system was “very flawed,” did not accurately represent the will of voters and discouraged candidates from running. 

Winning Progressive Burlington City Council candidates Jack Hanson, left, and Perri Freeman hug at the Progressives' results viewing party on March 5. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“I don’t think that myself or anyone else should win or lose an election based on the number of candidates that are running,” he said. “I think we should win or lose based on how our policies align with the voters in our district.” 

IRV was repealed by Burlington voters by a 52% to 48% margin in 2010, after Progressive Mayor Bob Kiss was reelected in 2009. Now, a candidate can win an election with 40% of the vote if they receive a plurality. 

Wright received the highest percentage of first-place votes cast in the 2009 mayoral election but lost after Kiss accumulated more second-place votes when other candidates were eliminated in the system. 

In the first round, Wright received 33% of first-place votes, to 29% for Kiss and 23% for Democrat Andy Montroll. Wright also won the second round of voting when two other candidates were eliminated, but Kiss prevailed in the third round after votes for Montroll were redistributed. 

If approved by voters, the charter change would need legislative approval to go into effect. 

Hanson said the system would encourage positive campaigning as candidates would seek the second and third choice ranking from supporters of their opponents. He said in other jurisdictions, it has increased the diversity and number of candidates. 

Hanson said that voters should get another chance to consider the voting system 10 years after narrowly rejecting the system. 

“The voters of 2010 are not the same voters of 2020,” he said. 

A bipartisan group of state legislators who represent Burlington sent a letter to the council in support of the resolution. Former Democratic Gov. Howard Dean signed the letter, as did Rep. Selene Coburn, P-Burlington, Rep. Brian Cina, P-Burlington, Rep. Bob Hooper, D- Burlington, and Rep. Mary Sullivan, D-Burlington. 

“Ranked choice voting is a non-partisan issue that is fundamentally about improving and expanding access to our democratic process by eliminating the ‘spoiler’ effect and requiring winning candidates to have majority support,” the lawmakers wrote. 

Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, Sen. Chris Pearson, D/P-Chittenden, and former Rep. Kesha Ram, also signed the letter. Bills that would institute ranked-choice voting statewide are pending in the Legislature. 

More than 20 cities use ranked choice voting, according to Rob Richie, the president of nonprofit FairVote. Maine uses ranked choice voting at the state and federal level.

“RCV’s simplicity, representative outcomes and positive experience for voters have made it an increasingly popular election method,” Richie wrote in a letter to the council. 

UVM professor Anthony Gierzynski conducted an analysis of IRV in Burlington that laid out a case against using the system. He wrote that the IRV makes the ballot more confusing for voters, and consequently discriminates against those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.

Kurt Wright, newly-elected president of the Burlington City Council in Burlington on Monday, April 1, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger
Kurt Wright, newly elected president of the Burlington City Council, in Burlington on April 1. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

In Burlington’s 2009 election, Montroll defeated both Wright and Kiss in head-to-head matchups, but did not win the election, Gierzynski wrote. He also determined that if some Wright voters had voted for Kiss instead, Kiss would have ended up losing the election to Montroll in a run-off. 

A large majority of elections experts do not favor ranked-choice voting, Gierzynski wrote. 

“It would be as easy to find one such expert in support of rank order voting as it would be to find a climate scientist who thinks global warming isn’t taking place,” he wrote. “In the end, Instant Runoff Voting is simply not the panacea that its proponents claim.” 

Wright said at Monday’s meeting that the instant runoff ranked choice voting did not work in Burlington. He said the system did not do away with negative campaigning, did not increase voter participation and led to a campaign where the candidates avoided taking strong stands on the issues in order to not alienate any voters. 

“What we got in Burlington, of all places, was a homogeneous, vanilla-type campaign that did not inspire voters, it actually left clouds of doubt,” he said.

The council rejected in a 6-6 vote an amendment proposed by Shannon that would have effectively postponed consideration of the issue until after Town Meeting Day in March. She argued that the council’s charter change committee needed to take more time to review the issue. 

Hanson said he believed voters would have enough time to consider the system in the months leading up to the election, and that the issue would have to go on this ballot to have a chance of being in effect for the 2021 mayoral election. 

Tracy, the chair of the charter change committee, said he believed the committee could make a good-faith effort to return the issue to the council at its next meeting, the deadline for the March Town Meeting Day ballot. 

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Aidan Quigley

About Aidan

Aidan Quigley is VTDigger's Burlington and Chittenden County reporter. He most recently was a business intern at the Dallas Morning News and has also interned for Newsweek, Politico, the Christian Science Monitor and the Republican-American newspaper in Waterbury, Connecticut. He is a 2018 graduate of Ithaca College, where he served as the editor-in-chief of The Ithacan, the student newspaper. He is a native of Trumbull, Connecticut.


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