BURLINGTON, Vt. – When Burlington residents head to the polls in November, they’ll be asked whether or not the city should use ranked choice voting for mayoral, city council and school commissioner elections. Burlington City Council approved adding the question in a 6-5 vote Monday night.
If voters approve, Burlington would adopt ranked choice voting without a separate runoff election. The ballot would give voters the option of ranking candidates in order of preference, and if a candidate receives the majority of voters’ first preferences, they would be elected.
If no candidate receives a majority of first preferences, an instant runoff re-tabulation would be performed. In each runoff round, each voter’s ballot counts as a single vote for whichever continuing candidate the voter has ranked highest. The candidate with the fewest votes after each round shall be eliminated until only two candidates remain, with the candidate then receiving the greatest number of votes being elected.
The city used RCV — which is sometimes referred to as instant-runoff voting — from 2006 to 2010. The format caused a stir in 2009, when former Mayor Bob Kiss was re-elected despite Republican City Council President Kurt Wright receiving more first preference ballots.
Kiss’ term would later be viewed as the beginning of the Burlington Telecom crisis in which the city’s credit rating was downgraded six times. The following year, ranked choice voting was repealed by a relatively slim margin of 303 votes.
Opinion on ranked choice voting was split at Monday’s city council public forum.
“IRV promised us that we could vote our hopes and not our fears,” said Robert Bristow Johnson. “But in Burlington in 2009, the largest group of Wright voters had marked [Andy] Montroll as their second choice, but my making Wright their first choice, they actually caused the election of Bob Kiss. This promise of vote your choice and not your fears was not delivered to these voters.”
“I fully support this and I urge all of you to support this whether or not you support ranked choice voting itself,” said Samantha Hurt. “The whole point is to allow your constituents to vote and decide themselves if they want this.”
City council Democrats, including Councilor Franklin Paulino, were critical of adding the issue to November’s ballot without more discussion. He also called ranked choice voting “a solution in search of a problem.”
“I guarantee a large part of the public has no idea we’re here tonight, on Zoom, voting on changing the way we vote,” Paulino said. “I have not heard a problem, there’s no problem.”
Progressive councilors, meanwhile, maintain that RCV will increase voter turnout and encourage a wider pool of candidates. Efforts have been underway for nearly a year to grow the conversation around RCV.
“America has such a strong voter turnout problem,” said Councilor Zoraya Hightower (P). “Burlington isn’t unique in that, we have a problem, this is a solution to a well known problem.”