Published March 21, 2006 at 8:08 p.m.
MONTPELIER -- State lawmakers from the House and Senate government operations committees met jointly last week to hear testimony on Burlington's recent foray into instant runoff voting. There was near-universal praise for the city's voter-education program and for how the mechanics of the voting process were implemented. There was anything but consensus, however, on how IRV affected the campaign.
Under IRV, voters can rank candidates in order of preference. When the votes are tallied, if one candidate doesn't receive more than 50 percent of the votes, the second-choice votes of the bottom candidates are reallocated to the two leading contenders until someone receives a majority.
Some of the harshest criticism about IRV came from Senator Hinda Miller, the Democratic frontrunner who came in second behind Progressive Rep. Bob Kiss due to the instant-runoff procedure.
While Miller readily acknowledged that Kiss "won this election fair and square," she complained that her Republican opponent, Kevin Curley, had "interfered . . . with the independent thinking of his supporters." During interviews and debates leading up to the election, Curley announced that he planned to vote for Kiss as his second choice. He was the only candidate to indicate his IRV preferences.
Since Curley came in third in the first round, his voters' second choices were redistributed to Kiss and Miller. According to Burlington City Attorney Joe McNeil, 833 of those votes went to Kiss and 818 to Miller. The remaining 958 Curley voters listed no second preference. After the election, Curley told the press he had "saved Burlington from a Hinda Miller administration."
During last week's hearing, Senator Jim Condos (D-Chittenden), who chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee, tried to make light of Curley's remarks. "Sounds to me like the Progressives and the Republicans got together. That's an amazing feat," he joked. But Miller didn't appear to be in a laughing mood.
"In IRV, the candidate was allowed to influence that second vote," she countered. "I personally find that very scary, and I, as a candidate, could not figure out how to game this system. And it becomes a game."
Currently, both the House and Senate are considering bills that would adopt IRV for statewide races. Miller advised her fellow lawmakers to "please go slow on this" and urged them to consider how IRV changes the way campaigns function.
The Vermont Republican Party also weighed in with its assessment of IRV. Speaking on behalf of the state GOP, Rep. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington) refrained from taking a formal stand for or against instant runoff. However, he claimed that IRV made Burlington's mayoral candidates far more reluctant to take strong positions on the issues out of fear of alienating their opponents' voters and losing their second-place votes.
The result, Wright argued, was that "personality became more important than issues." He suggested that a traditional runoff election would have refocused the campaigns and the media's attention on the differences between the two finalists' positions.
Others were even more pointed in their condemnation of IRV. Burlington attorney and Democratic former Representative Sandy Baird described IRV as "an electoral strategy" rather than an electoral reform, and called it "a solution to a problem that never existed." (Burlington had never held a runoff race for mayor.) As a lawyer, Baird also questioned whether IRV violates the constitutional right of "one person, one vote." She later explained that anyone who voted for the bottom three candidates as both their first- and second-place choices were effectively denied a vote in the runoff.
Baird, who sponsored a mayoral debate at City Hall, echoed Wright's comments that because the candidates were all vying for each other's second-place votes, the race was more focused on personalities than on issues. Baird, who had endorsed Miller's candidacy, added, "I've never seen such personal attacks, on one candidate in particular, in my entire history in Burlington."
But Mayor-elect Kiss disagreed that the candidates didn't differentiate themselves from one another, and he challenged Miller's remarks that anyone was "gaming the system." As Kiss put it, "I'm not sure that candidates can try to guess the system."
Kiss said that in his assessment, Burlington voters were well served by IRV since a mayor was elected by the largest number of voters; typically, voter turnout drops markedly in runoff elections that are held weeks after the election. Kiss also disagreed that the race mostly featured personal attacks.
"It was about our skills and experience and issues," Kiss said. "I think it's unfair to say that the people of Burlington really couldn't make distinctions."
Terry Bouricius, a former city councilor and state representative who endorsed Kiss, offered another positive assessment of IRV. Recently, Bouricius worked as an electoral consultant for the city. He told the lawmakers that the legal question about whether IRV violates the one-person, one-vote principle has been "absolutely settled" in case law around the country. In fact, he pointed out that Robert's Rules of Order recommends it as superior to plurality voting.
What wasn't in dispute during last week's session were the mechanical efficiencies and cost-savings IRV made possible. Caleb Kleppner, an electoral consultant who testified by phone, told the committees that the electronic voting machines and IRV software worked "extremely smoothly," with only 0.1 percent of the ballots declared invalid. More than 89 percent of Burlington's voters chose to rank their candidates, Kleppner added, and there was no evidence that IRV discouraged people from going to the polls or that it disenfranchised certain voters, such as minorities.
Voter turnout in this month's mayoral election was also significantly higher than the past mayoral elections, Kleppner added. About 39 percent of Burlington's registered voters went to the polls this year, compared to 24 percent in 2003. While Kleppner credited the elevated voter interest to IRV, critics of the new system countered that it's unfair to compare this election to those in recent years. As Miller pointed out, this was the first mayoral race in 14 years when an incumbent wasn't up for reelection. And Rep. Wright noted that, in 2003, incumbent Peter Clavelle didn't have a major-party contender; during the 2001 election, he added, a snowstorm dumped two feet of snow on the city. Turnout that year was 21 percent.
Jo LaMarche, the city's director of elections and records, said that although IRV was "anxiety-provoking," she was relieved that it worked as well as it did. The system also saved taxpayers between $8000 and $10,000, she added, which is the average cost of holding a citywide election.
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