Burlington to kick off runoff

By Terri Hallenbeck
Published March 6th 2006 in Burlington Free Press
Tuesday's ballot for Burlington mayor will look like no other most voters have seen. Instead of the old method of marking one candidate per office, city voters will be looking at a grid on which they may rank the five candidates.

The process is called instant runoff voting, and it's hailed as a way to open elections to more candidates and diminish the risk that third-party candidates act as spoilers. The city is one of just a few in the country -- including San Francisco -- to use the system.

Plenty of people around the state and nation will be watching to see how it works this week in Burlington. Jo LaMarche, city elections director, said she's had inquiries from as far away as Alaska by officials interested in Burlington's inaugural run at instant runoff voting.

What it means for Burlington voters is that they might want to take a few minutes to read the instructions. Residents were sent postcards detailing the system. Each of the city's polling places will be staffed with helpers offering instructions and answering questions, LaMarche said. Instructions are available at www.burlingtonvotes.org.

No need to worry about making a mistake, though. If a voter marks two candidates as his first choice, for example, the machine will reject the ballot and the voter can try again, LaMarche said. Voters have three chances to get it right.

Although the process allows voters to mark their first through fifth choices for mayor, they may choose to pick only a first choice and leave the rest of the choices blank.

Terry Bouricius, a former state legislator and elections consultant, said voters don't need to plot out any special strategies -- just simply vote in the order of preference. "Voting for your second choice cannot help and cannot hurt your first choice," he said.

The rest of the work will be up the machines that tally the votes. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of first-choice votes, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and that candidate's second-choice votes will be counted. The process continues until someone reaches 50 percent.

Instant runoff voting applies only to the mayoral race, not to the city council seats or other items on the ballot.

The new balloting brings another change to the voting routine in Burlington, LaMarche said. Results will not be announced in each ward but instead will be tallied at City Hall on Tuesday night.

Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz is among those who will be watching closely to see what happens. She said she wants to know if the process is confusing, if voters like it and how hard it is to administer, before she'll know whether it's something the state ought to venture into.

If Tuesday's voting goes well in Burlington, legislators will be taking a serious look at a pending bill that calls for using the method for statewide offices, from auditor to governor. Rep. David Zuckerman, a Burlington Progressive who has long been irked by the argument that his party sometimes plays "spoiler" in three-way elections, is eager to see that. He and other instant runoff supporters will testify before the House and Senate Government Operations committees the week after town meeting.