What is the Burlington City Council's ranked-choice voting resolution?

Published: Dec. 4, 2019 at 12:24 AM EST
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There’s controversy in Burlington over a plan to potentially reinstate an unconventional voting system in all mayoral, city councilor and school commissioner elections.

On Monday night, the Burlington City Council voted 9-3 to approve a resolution that seeks to bring back ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting. Burlington used ranked-choice voting from 2005 to 2009 before it was repealed in 2010.

In instant-runoff voting, voters rank the candidates based on preference instead of voting for one person. If after all the votes are counted none of the candidates has more than 50 percent of the vote, the election automatically goes into a runoff. That means the person with the lowest number of votes would be out of the race and the second choice of all of the people who voted for that person as their first choice would be redistributed.

Progressive councilor Jack Hanson, one of the sponsors of the resolution, says he believes instant-runoff voting ensures every vote is represented and is more appealing to voters by allowing them to cast their ballots based on their conscience and not a strategy.

“This way, they get to vote in the first round for their top candidate and put that as their top choice, and then still distinguish if their candidate does lose, who they would prefer out of the remaining candidates,” said Hanson.

Political analyst Matthew Dickinson says that is one of the benefits.

“Your second preference is no longer thrown away but, in fact, it matters. So you're more likely to vote your sincere preference knowing— if I vote for the Progressive and the Progressive doesn't win, my vote's not wasted because that vote will then, through the second round, will go to the Democrat, so I'm not wasting my vote,” Dickinson explained. “I don't have to be as strategic in how I calculate. I can vote on my sincere preferences.”

Burlington first experimented with instant-runoff voting in 2005. All of the City Council’s Progressives and independents are in favor of bringing it back. Two Democrats and the only Republican are not.

Council President Kurt Wright thinks whoever gets the majority vote should win.

“Most votes win, not by some concoction of a made-up runoff that is a concoction of different votes and we have to figure out what the second and third place votes really meant,” said Wright.

Wright lost the 2009 mayoral race under ranked-choice voting. He won 32 percent of the vote in a five-way race. After two rounds of instant-runoff voting, Bob Kiss prevailed. Wright says that’s not why he opposes ranked-choice voting. He says it’s because he thinks the system is confusing to voters and generates dull campaigns because candidates are trying to remain neutral in hopes of being selected as someone’s second or third choice.

“It produces homogenous, vanilla-type campaigns that people are sort of mushed to the middle. Where I was taking strong stands, other candidates were more concerned about, 'Where are Kurt's second-place votes or his third-place votes going?' or 'Where are Bob Kiss's second, third place votes going?'" Wright said. “And when you think about an issue, some would say, 'I can't take a strong stance on that issue because I don't want to offend somebody else's voters.’ Voters come out and turn out when you have an exciting election where candidates are taking a strong stance. We don’t want candidates being overly negative but we do want them taking strong, vigorous stands on issues and when candidates are afraid to do that, that doesn’t excite the electorate and get people to come out and vote.”

Dickinson says that is a common drawback of instant-runoff voting.

“There is an argument to be made that, because you have more candidates running, the election campaigns tend to be, not only more civil but more bland. Candidates are very concerned about alienating voters and they don't really push back on the way that distinguishes their support or issue stance from another candidate's issue stance because they know they might need that other candidate's voters on the second or third ballots,” Dickinson said.

The ranked-choice voting resolution now heads to the Charter Change Committee for a vote on whether to put it on the March 2020 ballot.