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Every week, Vermont Public's politics team provides a succinct breakdown of some of the biggest issues at the Statehouse.>> Sign up for the Capitol Recap newsletter here

Capitol Recap: Lawmakers consider a potentially major change for Vermont elections

Hands sort through handwritten notes to determine the winner of a plow truck naming vote
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
On Town Meeting Day this year, Peacham suspended its rules to use ranked choice voting to choose a name for its plow truck. Only one round was required: Robert Frost just barely won a majority with 45 out of 88 total votes cast. The plow will be named Robert Frost for three years. Unicorn Egg came in second with 23 votes.

The Vermont Senate has given its approval to legislation that supporters believe could have an enormous impact on future elections in the state.

It’s a bill that addresses ranked choice voting at both the local and state level.

To talk about the plan for this week’s Capitol Recap, Vermont Public’s senior political correspondent Bob Kinzel joined host Jenn Jarecki. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jenn Jarecki: So Bob, what's this legislation all about? And why do supporters think it could have such a big impact on elections in Vermont?

Bob Kinzel: Well, Jenn, it allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. And it's based on the principle that democracy is better served when candidates who win an election actually have the support of a majority of voters — not a plurality, but at least 50%. Now with two candidates in a race, that's going to happen. But let's say you have three, four, or even 10 candidates in a race — the winning candidate might receive 30% of the vote or less.

Chittenden Sen. Tanya Vyhovsky is a co-sponsor of the bill.

"It ensures that we nominate or elect our leaders who have broad support," she said. "It's well known that candidates with similar platforms, experiences or demographic characteristics can split supporters and votes — potentially helping another candidate take the lead."

Now, Jenn, there are three main parts to this bill.

One: it calls for the system to be used in Vermont's 2028 presidential primary election.

Two: it allows any town to implement this system, if they want to with the approval of voters and or local officials, beginning next year.

And three: it calls for a special commission to study the challenges that might be encountered if the system is used in statewide elections, beginning in 2026.

OK, Bob, can you break down for us exactly how this rank choice voting system would work?

Let me give it a shot, Jenn. Let's take a look at the Burlington mayor's race of 2009, because I think it serves as a pretty good example of why people either love or hate ranked choice voting.

So here's what happened. There were four strong candidates after the first round, Republican Kurt Wright was in the lead with 33% of the vote. Progressive Bob Kiss was second with 29%. Democrat Andy Montroll was third with 23%. And independent Dan Smith was last with 15%.

Without ranked choice voting in Burlington, there would have been a runoff between the top two candidates because the City Charter requires this process. In many other Vermont towns, 33% could have been enough to win.

But ranked choice voting sets up a different outcome. No candidate receives 50% of the vote, and that's the only time that ranked choice voting is ever used. So Dan Smith, who was in last place, is eliminated. And the second-choice votes of his supporters are then tabulated. And here's what happens. Kurt Wright, still in first place. Bob Kiss, still in second. Andy Montroll, still in third. But nobody has gotten 50% of the vote yet.

So we go on. Andy Montroll, being in last place, now is eliminated. And the second-choice votes of his supporters are tabulated. About two thirds of his supporters select Bob Kiss, and about a third select Kurt Wright. And this puts Bob Kiss over the top with a majority of votes. And Kurt Wright now falls to second place. So here's what upsets some people: Kurt Wright was the leader after the first round and the second round, but he ends up losing when the second-choice votes are tabulated.

A graphic showing how ranked-choice voting resulted in the reelection of Burlington Mayor Bob Kiss in 2009, even though challenger Kurt Wright received the greatest number of first-choice votes.
April McCullum
Vermont Public
Ranked-choice voting resulted in the reelection of Burlington Mayor Bob Kiss in 2009, even though challenger Kurt Wright received the greatest number of first-choice votes.

Great example, Bob — that is really helpful. I'm curious, why do backers of this plan think it will encourage a more diverse group of candidates to run for office?

Well, Jenn, they think that it eliminates what's known as the spoiler effect. You know, that's when a person wants to vote for a candidate but feels that the candidate really has no chance of winning, so they don't want to waste their vote on that candidate.

Here's Sen. Vyhovsky again.

"Candidates seen as long shots are pressured to drop out, limiting the field not based on voters choices — but because of the limits of a single choice system," she said.

And the senator also thinks there will be less negative campaigning with a ranked choice system.

"Helping to ameliorate toxic campaign tactics — mudslinging — that can be common in elections. With ranked choice voting, candidates are competing not just for a first choice, but for the second or third choice votes from their opponents' supporters, which lessens the incentives for negative campaigns," she said.

Bob, when this bill was first debated recently on the Senate floor, a number of senators spoke out against the legislation. I'm curious, what are some of their concerns?

Jenn, there were a number of senators who felt that this system is way too complicated for voters to understand. And Sen. Russ Ingalls predicted that using this system in his district would lead to total chaos.

"I know in my communities, it's going to be a complete, utter disaster of these people trying to explain to these folks how this thing works — how they're going be able to go in there and fill a ballot out and not just totally screw it up," he said.

Jenn, that's one of the reasons that supporters say that bill really does need to have a comprehensive public education provision. I should also mention there are different types of tabulation programs being considered. And there are critics who think that the entire framework of this legislation is seriously flawed.

You know I've got to ask, Bob — what's the outlook for this bill?

Well, I think it's pretty good. It's now being reviewed by the House Government Operations Committee. I think they're going to take a very serious look at it. It's also possible that Gov. Phil Scott might have some concerns with this bill. So it's definitely a case of "stay tuned."

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message.

Corrected: April 10, 2023 at 4:32 PM EDT
This article has been updated to clarify what could have happened without ranked choice voting in Burlington's 2009 mayoral election. In many towns, a simple plurality would have been sufficient to win. Bur in Burlington, Kurt Wright's 33% initial result would not have been enough to win, as the previous city charter required a 40% plurality.
Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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