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Burlington Advocates Push Ranked Choice Voting Initiative

Burlington City Hall
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Burlington City Hall (file)

Burlington, Vermont voters will be asked on Town Meeting Day March 2nd whether Ranked Choice Voting should be used to select city councilors. The charter change question is controversial as advocates say it’s a fairer way to choose city leaders.  But opponents point out the system has been used in the city in the past and discarded.
The Better Ballot Burlington campaign is made up of supporters of the charter change question, which asks voters if the system should be implemented for city council elections beginning in 2022.

Former Vermont Governor, Democratic National Committee Chair and presidential candidate Howard Dean supports the measure and is co-chair of the ballot campaign.  "I am a huge, and have been for a long time, believer in Ranked Choice Voting, formerly known as IRV (Instant Runoff Voting). This is a big initiative that’s great for democracy and it enfranchises more people. We all are winners when we vote under this system.  The second thing this contributes to unity. This is a way of having Election Day consensus among everybody that votes. And thirdly the tone of the campaign changes dramatically for a very practical reason: that if you know that your rival has voters that are going to vote for you second choice, you are not going to trash your rival. So this is a small change it only affects city council races. But you have to start someplace."

Ward 1 Progressive Zoraya Hightower, co-chair of the campaign, believes voters in Burlington are excited about implementing the system.  “Burlington is a city that has people constantly moving in and out. A lot of the people who experienced Ranked Choice Voting last time around weren’t even, weren’t in Burlington, weren’t voters in Burlington yet. And so I think there’s a lot of momentum and a lot of excitement about people having this new way to vote again.”

Governor Dean also told WAMC he is advocating for Ranked Choice Voting to be used across the country.  “It also eliminates the problem of the supposed candidate who can’t win. You still get to vote for who you think is the best candidate. It’s a complicated system but it’s easy to understand once you understand that your vote counts no matter what you who you want because you can rank your candidates in order of your preference. And that all goes into a computer and the most popular candidate ends up winning. Otherwise you have somebody winning with 26% of the vote which is ridiculous which actually happened in a number of races this year around the country.”

Betty Keller with the League of Women Voters of Vermont recounted a conversation she had with a voter from Berkeley, California.  “There hadn’t been Ranked Choice Voting for very long and voters opening their doors were surprised: Aren’t you guys running against each other? And they said yeah but you know we’re very similar in a lot of ways but these are the things that we’re different in. And if you rank that person first choice there’s a good chance I’m your second choice. I wanted to meet you. And it was just such a wonderful visual image of how different this would be.”

One of the opponents of the Ranked Choice Voting ballot question is Mayor Miro Weinberger.  The Democrat, who is seeking a fourth three-year term, vetoed a bill to put the question on the November ballot, saying it should be placed on the Town Meeting Day ballot.  But he personally opposes the system.  “Having experienced directly the two times that we had Ranked Choice Voting I don’t think it was a system that worked well in Burlington elections. It led to campaigns being very hesitant to define distinctions and differences between themselves on substance because of concern about alienating second or third votes of other candidates. I was a campaign chair of a mayoral election during that period. I just didn’t think it worked well. So I came to the conclusion that it’s not good for Burlington. I’ll be voting against it. At the same time I acknowledge that there are other elections with different circumstances, different structure to them, where innovations are needed.”

The Ranked Choice Voting question will appear on the March 2nd Town Meeting Day ballot.

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