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Proposal to use ranked-choice voting in Vermont presidential primary stalls

Published: Mar. 28, 2022 at 6:02 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - It’s back to the drawing board for an effort to overhaul presidential primary elections in Vermont. A plan to introduce ranked-choice voting is out, at least for this year.

Ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, is a system that lets voters rank their candidates in order of preference.

It has been used in several states and cities, including in Burlington before it was dropped in 2010. While a charter change to reinstate it in the Queen City is moving along, a proposal to apply it to presidential elections has been put on hold.

In a ranked-choice voting system, voters rank their choices 1, 2, 3 and so on. The winning candidate must receive a majority of votes. If nobody reaches 50%, the candidate with the lowest support is eliminated and those who voted for them have their votes go to their second choice.

A bill this session would have extended ranked-choice voting to presidential primary elections.

“We’re seeing now routinely 10, 12, 17 candidates running and without some kind of a ranked-ballot process, you can have someone winning who is not the choice of most voters,” said Sen. Chris Pearson, D/P-Chittenden County.

So supporters engaged in a media blitz to raise awareness. You may have seen them on TV from the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, including on Channel 3.

But the bill has since stalled in the Senate Government Operations Committee, in part because of the time it would take to set it up. Pandemic logistics of Town Meeting Day, the reapportionment process, distributing new tabulators and printing ballots all take time and resources.

“That means trying to oversee and ensure that we’re not missing something, that we’re diligently working to keep the confidence of Vermonters that our election system works,” said Jim Condos, D-Vt. Secretary of State.

There’s been robust debate surrounding ranked-choice voting and whether it’s the best way to conduct an election. Supporters contend ranked-choice voting gives voters more choices at the ballot box. But opponents say it homogenizes issues among candidates.

While ranked-choice voting is on hold for the presidential election, a Burlington charter change is moving forward under the golden dome. It reinstates the policy which was repealed in 2010 following a 2009 election where Republican Kurt Wright won 32% of the vote in a five-way race but lost to Bob Kiss after two rounds of instant-runoff voting.

Although the bigger presidential primary bill is not moving forward, advocates say familiarizing Vermonters with the new system could take time.

“Nobody thinks who’s been in this business any amount of time that putting an ad on TV will get a bill passed. But it can draw attention to the issue and begin the public engagement process,” said Paul Burns of VPIRG.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott has said he does not support ranked-choice voting. A spokesperson on Monday says Scott would rather see the state continue to grow mail-out ballots to primary and local elections.

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