A New Instant Dawn

By Peter Freyne
Published May 18th 2005 in Seven Day Newspapers
It was an historic Montpeculiar moment, but it happened almost in secret. There was no ceremony in the governor's office. No reporters or TV cameras were present, and no press release was issued. But last Thursday, Gov. Jim Douglas signed into law a bill that will forever change the way
Burlingtonians elect their mayor -- Instant Runoff Voting has arrived in Vermont!

On the recent March Town Meeting Day, Queen City voters overwhelmingly approved a charter change instituting IRV as the new method for electing mayors. The first implementation of the IRV system will occur next March.

Trust me, it's going to make for a different kind of campaign. Perhaps even a kinder and gentler one, too.

Mayor Peter Clavelle told Inside Track this week that, despite the lack of fanfare surrounding the new law, IRV will "invigorate democracy" in the Queen City.

The seven-term mayor, a Progressive who became a Democrat, has long been an enthusiastic supporter of IRV because, he says, "It makes a lot of sense."

Under the old election rules, a winning Burlington mayoral candidate had to get at least 40 percent of the votes cast. If no candidate did, a second runoff election between the top two would be conducted.

Under the new rules, however, the bar for victory has been raised to 50 percent. If no mayoral candidate reaches 50 percent when the ballots are counted, an instant runoff occurs. And that's where the fun begins!

For example, let's say there are four candidates for mayor. Voters will have the opportunity of ranking those four according to their preference as well as adding a write-in candidate.

On the first instant-runoff round, the last-place candidate is dropped and his/her ballots are distributed according to their marked second preference. A new count is taken. If no one has broken the 50 percent
threshold, the next-lowest candidate gets dropped and his/her votes distributed according to the marked second preferences. And so on until a winner is picked.

For an online Flash demonstration of how IRV works, check out www.instantrunoff.com.

The point is, when all the counting and recounting is done, voters end up with a mayor who, as Clavelle noted, "will serve with majority support."

Progressive City Councilor Phil Fiermonte, a top aide to Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders and a potential mayoral candidate himself, called last week's bill signing "a great victory for election reform."

The IRV method, said Phil the Prog, "will allow voters to back a third-party candidate without worrying about the spoiler effect."

Rep. Kurt Wright, Burlington's lone Republican member of the Vermont House, was the only Burlington rep who was not a cosponsor of H. 505.

"Theoretically," said Wright, "it won't favor Republicans because this is not a Republican town."

You're kidding.

"It's a whole new day in Burlington politics, and we'll just have to make the best of it," continued Wright. In fact, Kwik Stop Kurt suggested IRV might encourage more candidates to run for mayor, creating a Kentucky Derby-sized field.

One positive effect of IRV, all sides concede, is that mayoral campaigns will tend to be less negative and nasty. That's because each candidate will try to be picked as a second choice of their opponents' supporters.


Jo LaMarche, Burlington's director of elections and records, told Inside Track that implementation of IRV will be the topic at the next meeting of the city's Charter Change Committee. The city's voting machines will
either have to be upgraded, or recounts will have to be done manually.

So who will IRV benefit -- Democrats, Progressives, Republicans or Independents?

Time will tell, but it's worth noting that if Burlington had been using an IRV system back in 1981, the father of the state's Progressive movement would not have been elected mayor.

Bernie Sanders, an Independent, defeated incumbent Democratic Mayor Gordie Paquette by just 10 votes, out of almost 10,000 cast. Sanders squeaked to victory with 40.1 percent. Third-place finisher Richard Bove, an anti-Paquette "Independent Democrat," got about 1500 votes.

Had an instant runoff been required, old-timers agree that the second preference of Bove's supporters would not have been the loud-mouthed left-winger from Brooklyn.

Statewide IRV? -- Though he signed Burlington's IRV charter-change bill, Republican Gov. Jim Douglas opposes IRV for statewide elections. According to Press Secretary Jason Gibbs, the Guv's opposition is based in part on a legal opinion by Democratic Attorney General Bill Sorrell.

Sorrell's opinion is that a constitutional amendment, which itself requires voter approval, would be needed to institute IRV for the offices of governor, lieutenant governor and treasurer. He bases that on his
interpretation of the Vermont Constitution.

The election procedure for secretary of state and auditor, however, could be changed to IRV by legislation alone, according to Gen. Billy's legal opinion.

Of course, legal opinions are not perfect, as Sorrell demonstrated with an earlier opinion suggesting the granting of marriage rights to same-sex couple's was unconstitutional.

In fact, if you visit www.fairvotevermont.org, you'll find a scholarly legal opinion that makes mincemeat of Sorrell's opinion.

The fact is, IRV has broad bipartisan support. Republican Sen. John McCain supports it; so does DNC Chair Howard Dean. There's even an IRV bill in the legislature, but it remains tacked to the wall in the Senate Government Operations Committee.

Committee Chairman Jim Condos told Inside Track that the committee has been busy this winter on other issues, but said, "We'll take a crack at it next year."

The bill, S. 48, is sponsored by Condos and five others. It would institute IRV for all statewide races as well as for U.S. Senate and U.S. House.

Condos suggested that with Burlington voters breaking the IRV ice next March, "Lawmakers in Montpelier will see that IRV is not such a bad thing."

Stay tuned.