This commentary is by Betty J. Keller, M.D., of St. Johnsbury, a member of the League of Women Voters of Vermont.
A bill that could profoundly change our elections in Vermont, S.32, has already passed with unanimous, tripartisan approval in the Senate Committee on Government Operations and was passed to the House after a 23-7 vote by the Vermont Senate.
Because voters in Maine and Alaska had to use ballot initiatives to achieve ranked choice voting, S.32 would make Vermont the first state in the country to have its Legislature enact ranked choice voting for any statewide election.
VTDigger downplayed this bill’s significance in a March 29 article, and as of April 16, hasn’t deemed either S.32 or H.429 important enough to make the cut for its Legislative Guide. (H.429 is a “miscellaneous changes” bill that also has huge implications for our elections.)
An April 7 radio news show on Vermont Public repeated Rep. Russ Ingalls’ concerns that his constituents wouldn’t be able to figure out how to vote with ranked choice voting, without reporting that the research shows that very few people have trouble with it. It was only five minutes, so no time to talk about why ranked choice voting is particularly useful in presidential primaries. Other than that, crickets.
Initially, S.32 focused only on ranked choice voting for the 2024 presidential primary, so that mail-in ballots from people who voted for candidates who later withdrew before Election Day weren’t wasted. In addition, because votes are determining which candidates get delegates at the national convention, and how many each gets, this election is a perfect place for ranked choice voting to give voice to those voters whose first choice doesn’t qualify to get any delegates at all. If their favorite candidate doesn’t reach the threshold (determined by the party; in Vermont: 20% for Republicans and 15% for Democrats), their vote goes to their next choice that is still in the running.
A lot of testimony from the Secretary of State’s Office and from several municipal clerks persuaded the Senate Committee on Government Operations that 2024 was too soon to be confident we could roll it out without harming voter trust in the results, but that 2028 should be plenty of time.
Unfortunately, that is a long time to wait for this overdue election reform. Frugal Vermonters in past years chose to do away with runoff elections, which cost a lot, have lower participation, and delay the result. Plus, although ranked choice voting has been in use for over a hundred years in Australia, and was used for some local elections in the U.S. in the last century and more cities more recently, counting ranked choice ballots by hand was challenging in large elections.
However, now is the time to invest in our democracy. Mostly, invest time and energy. Whether or not a Vermonter knows the term “plurality,” most Vermonters have experienced the frustration of deciding whether to vote for who they think is the best candidate or who they think is the “lesser of two evils.” By ranking candidates, you can vote for who you think is best, but indicate your backup choice if that person doesn’t have enough support to win.
We already have the equipment to tabulate ranked choice voting, so we just have to pay for the software upgrade. The rest of the investment is on education of voters and training of clerks and poll workers.
Filling out the ranked choice voting ballot is easy. You have to spend more time researching the candidates if you decide to take advantage of the opportunity, but voters who have used it in Maine, Alaska, New York City, California, Virginia, Utah, and Burlington, Vermont, agree that the actual voting is easy.
The hard part is making sure voters understand how the tabulating works, so they trust the results. You can vote a system in, not trust the results, and vote to repeal it, like Burlington did. But now, Burlingtonians have chosen to use it again and expand it to more local races. Hopefully citizens understand it better this time, so they are more assertive in protecting ranked choice voting if there is a proposal to repeal it again during a low-turnout year.
The exciting thing about S.32 is that two additional features were added: Communities would have the option to choose ranked choice voting for local elections as early as 2024, and a study committee would look at the possibility of ranked choice voting for one or more statewide elections in 2026, as well.
The League of Women Voters of Vermont is providing an educational session online on Tuesday, April 18 at 3:30 p.m. We will be using online ranked choice voting ballots for a mock election and welcome you to look at the ballot and vote, whether you attend or not. The link to a recording of a similar educational program held yesterday, Monday, April 17, will be posted here.
An in-person event at Rutland Free Library at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 2, will include a mock election with paper ballots. An online event at 7 p.m. on Monday, May 8, will provide an update on the status of S.32, and an opportunity for participants to ask questions and share concerns. We are also scheduling additional events, so please check our calendar to see when new events are added, or send a request to firstname.lastname@example.org to get on our email list for notifications.