Among other ballot initiatives for Burlington on Town Meeting Day, voters will decide whether to allow ranked-choice voting for all city council races.
Unlike traditional voting practices, ranked-choice voting is a new approach to elections that lets voters rank candidates in order of preference — first choice, second choice, third choice, and so on. If a voter’s first choice candidate does not win, that vote shifts over to the next preferred candidate — and the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes gets eliminated. The process continues until there is a winner who has at least 50% plus one of all votes.
The voting scheme was tried in Burlington from 2005 to 2010, but was then repealed.
Kurt Wright, a former state lawmaker and Burlington City Council president, says he’s against bringing it back because it didn’t work as promised.
“They sold it to voters, when it passed back in 2005, that this was an exciting new system which would increase voter turnout and do away with negative campaigning, and all these things. And none of it really came to pass,” he told True North on Tuesday. “It didn’t increase voter turnout, it didn’t do away with negative campaigning. It did create campaigns which were sorta vanilla, homogenous kind of campaigns.”
Wright said he finds it “disconcerting” that a major change to the election system is up for a vote despite “so little attention paid to it.”
“I’m afraid that it’s going to pass and people are not going to really have heard much discussion or much vigorous debating about it,” he said.
The current system for Burlington is that candidates only need 40% of the vote to win, and if no candidate reaches 40%, there must be a runoff election. Wright said that runoffs allow the voters a chance to re-evaluate and focus on the remaining candidates, which is not the case with ranked choice voting.
“They are kind of voting in the dark,” he said about instant run-offs with ranked-choice voting.
In July 2020, Burlington City Council passed ranked-choice voting by a 6-5 vote, but Mayor Miro Weinberger vetoed the measure in August. The mayor said it would cost taxpayers about $45,000 to implement the changes. A ballot question was later approved by the council in October.
Ali Dieng, a current city councilor and mayoral candidate, told True North he opposes the ballot measure.
“I am not in support of ranked choice voting — I will be voting no,” he said.
Dieng said if the city wants to go with ranked-choice voting, it should not pertain to city council races.
“It doesn’t make any sense. We should have started with the mayor only and see if it is really working,” he said.
Dieng added that proponents of the measure need to do better job “educating the people about the types of ranked-choice voting that exist and why this one is the best for the city of Burlington.”
GOP chairwoman Deb Billado, who also doesn’t support the change, said it has been tried before and didn’t work.
“They got rid of it, so why would they be bringing it back?” she said. “Unless it’s a very progressive method of voting that the Progs want to bring back in again. I’m not sure who’s actually pushing this except that we do know Burlington is extremely progressive.”
In 2020, the Action Now Initiative provided $6.59 million for ranked-choice voting around the nation, and Unite America contributed $3.84 million to ranked-choice voting campaigns, according to a Ballotpedia report.
Supporters say the new voting method may serve to keep out candidates with non-mainstream views. Kristina Mensik, assistant director of Common Cause Massachusetts, told Public News Service that having ranked-voting means fewer “extreme” candidates.