Will Burlington voters expand ranked choice voting?
BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Burlington residents will be weighing in on another ranked-choice charter change this Town Meeting Day, a measure to extend the method of voting to all city elections including the mayor.
Ranked choice voting has been an ongoing discussion in Burlington for years. Burlington used ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, in mayoral elections from 2005 and 2010 and repealed it after the leader in a five-way race for mayor lost after two rounds of voting, souring voters to this method.
Now, it’s back in limited use and could be expanded if voters agree. Two years ago, voters approved the method for City Council elections. It was used for the first time in a special election in December and will be in play for one council race on Town Meeting Day.
Under ranked-choice, a candidate must secure more than 50% of the votes cast to be declared the winner. Rather than just voting for one candidate in a race, the process involves ranking candidates in order of preference. Bert Johnson, a political science professor at Middlebury College, says most people’s confusion lies in the fact it’s brand new to them. “One way to think about it is there are multiple stages of voting that takes place within the context of one election,” he said.
One example comes from December’s special election for the City Council’s East District seat. It featured three candidates and a line for write-in votes. Voters had the option to rank those options one through four by filling in the corresponding bubble on the ballot. Democrat Mea Brandt received more than 50% of the original vote, so she was declared the winner. However, election officials still went through the process of candidate elimination. After the first round, they eliminated the write-in candidate, because it had the least number of votes. Those votes were transferred to the candidates the write-in voters ranked in second place. Voters who selected a write-in for first place, then had their second-place points divvied up, Brandt receiving four more votes and Jake Schumann receiving three more. That still left Schumann in third place, so in the next round, he was eliminated and his supporters’ second-choice votes were assigned to the remaining two candidates, with 22 votes going to Brandt and 26 to second-place finisher Dina John. Although there was no change in the outcome because Brandt already had a majority on the first ballot, ranked choice can result in the original top vote-getter losing the election, as it did in the 2009 mayor’s race.
Johnson says some voters might only want to vote for one candidate who they prefer the most, such as those who vote strictly along party lines. “If you only have a preference for one person, you can certainly only vote for preference one, but be aware that if that candidate gets dropped after the first round because the candidate has too few votes to continue, your vote in that second round will not be counted because you have no second choice vote and your first choice candidate is out of it,” he said.
Notably, Mayor Miro Weinberger won the last election by a razor-thin margin of just 129 votes. If ranked-choice voting was in play, the election would have been determined by the second or third-choice candidates.
Johnson says the ranked-choice movement has gained some traction nationally. Maine and Alaska both use it for national elections. He says the system is designed to result in more polite and civil campaigns because candidates are also vying for those second place.
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