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Ask Bob: Could Vermont adopt ranked-choice voting?

A photo of a roll of "I Voted Stickers:
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Could Vermont adopt ranked-choice voting? VPR senior political reporter Bob Kinzel looks into it.

Could Vermont adopt ranked-choice voting?

Listener Dell Waterhouse of Worcester asks: "This may be unrealistic, but I'd really like to see us set up ranked-choice voting in time for the primaries this year. Primaries usually have more than two candidates. And this would assure that the winner was the candidate preferred by a majority of the people who voted. Is there any chance that could happen?"

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with senior political correspondent Bob Kinzel about ranked-choice voting for the latest installment of Ask Bob. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Well, before we answer that question, Bob, not all of our listeners may be familiar with the concept of ranked-choice voting. So how exactly does this work?

Bob Kinzel: It's used only if no candidate gets 50% of the votes.

So, if we have a two-person race, it's not used. Now, if there are three or more candidates in a race, and one of them receives 50% of the vote, that's it, that's the end, that person is declared the winner. Ranked-choice voting doesn't have any impact whatsoever.

So, just to be clear, we're only talking about circumstances where there are at least three candidates, and nobody gets 50% of the vote.

Now, what ranked-choice voting does, it allows a person to rank the candidates in order of preference. So, let's take a race that has three candidates.

Candidate Smith is my favorite. I select her as my top choice.

But I think Candidate Jones is pretty good, too. So I'm going to list them second. But I don't think very highly of that third candidate, so I don't list them at all.

So, now it comes time to tabulate the votes. The first round lists all the first place votes, and we have a situation where no candidate receives 50% of the vote.

So, the candidate who came in third place is eliminated, and we tally their second choices in the overall mix. And when these votes are tabulated, we end up with a candidate who has 50% of the vote.

Same process would be used if there were four or five candidates in the race: The person with the lowest number of votes is eliminated. Their second place votes are added to the other candidates. And this is done until some candidate has 50% of the vote.

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Well, is ranked-choice voting used in a lot of places around the country currently?

You know, Mitch, it's really growing. Right now Maine and Alaska use it for congressional races, and several dozen cities and towns use it for local elections.

And just recently, New York City used ranked-choice voting for their mayor's race, where they had a number of pretty strong candidates. And it seemed to work pretty well.

What are the basic arguments both for and against the use of ranked-choice voting?

Well, backers of ranked-choice voting say a key principle of democracy is that a winning candidate should have the support of a majority of voters.

Paul Burns is the executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. He thinks it's a bad idea when the winning candidate only receives, let's say, 40% of the overall vote.

"If we have a system where 60% of voters who turn out in an election vote against a single candidate, and that candidate ends up winning, then that's not healthy for democracy," Burns said.

Now, Mitch, not everybody agrees. Former Burlington Rep. Kurt Wright was a candidate for mayor in Burlington in 2009. Wright told me there's no magic in winning a majority of votes. He pointed out that Bernie Sanders didn't get 50% of the vote in his winning race for mayor back in 1981.

"I don't worry so much about 50%. It's great if you can get that, but our own Bernie Sanders didn't get 50%, and went on to have obviously a rock-star career, whether you like Bernie or not, to his credit he did," Wright said.

So Mitch, what you have is a fundamental difference in thinking, in philosophy. Is it important for the winning candidate to be supported by at least 50% of the voters? Ranked-choice voting people say the answer is yes. Others say no.

Well, let's say Vermont did use ranked-choice voting for certain elections. Do you think it might encourage more candidates to run for office, and perhaps even create a more diverse group of candidates?

Supporters would say definitely, yes. And here's why. They argue that with ranked-choice voting, voters will feel good about voting for the lesser-known candidates, because if that candidate is eliminated, the voter still has a chance to rank a second choice candidate.

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The 2009 mayor's race in Burlington, is that a pretty good example of how ranked-choice voting works, and why some people strongly support the concept while others really oppose it?

Mitch, it really does. And what's fascinating about this is that both sides of the debate point to this race to backup their positions.

So, let's take a close look at what happened. In 2009, there were four strong candidates running for mayor of Burlington — there was Republican Kurt Wright, Democrat Andy Montroll, Progressive Bob Kiss, and independent Dan Smith.

After the first round of voting, Kurt Wright had 33%, Bob Kiss, the Progressive, had 29%, Andy Montroll received 23%, and Dan Smith got 15%.

So, no candidate received 50% of the vote, and ranked-choice voting goes into effect.

So, what happens? The fourth-place candidate Dan Smith is eliminated, and we tally the second choice of the Smith voters.

It turns out, they're pretty evenly split among the other three candidates. So, the margins don't actually change very much. Kurt Wright still in first place, Bob Kiss in second and Andy Montroll in third.

But again, no candidate has yet received 50% of the vote. So, we continue with the process, right?

Democrat Andy Montroll is in third place. So, he gets eliminated. And we tally the second choices of his voters. And what happens? These voters strongly favor Progressive Bob Kiss over Republican Kurt Wright.

So. in the final tally, Kiss jumps from second to first and gets over 50% of the vote, and is declared the winner.

So I think this race serves as a great example of how ranked-choice voting works. And folks can decide, do they like this system or not?

Bob, legislation has been introduced at the Statehouse to use ranked-choice voting in Vermont's Congressional elections and the presidential primary. What is the outlook for the bill?

Well, Mitch, I think it's gonna take some time for this concept to work its way through the political process, because on one hand, it seems pretty straightforward, but at the same time, I can see where people might find it to be a little confusing.

I mean, we've taken this whole segment just to explain how it works. So, I think that its chances will improve as more and more people become familiar with the concept. And if it starts to be used in some local elections in Vermont, and voters can experience it firsthand.

Have questions, comments, or concerns? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb.

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."
Lydia worked for Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS from 2019 until 2022.
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