The House Committee on Government Operations and Military Affairs took up a bill for ranked-choice voting in presidential primary elections on Friday.
The state’s elections director noted that doing so will require new challenges regarding the chain of custody for paper ballots and memory cards, which must be transported from all over the state to a central location.
According to the General Assembly web site, S.32 is “An act relating to ranked-choice voting for presidential primary elections.”
Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate gets a majority of votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and second-preference votes for that candidate are considered. The process continues until one candidate attains the majority of votes.
Tim Devlin of the Legislative Counsel briefed the committee. He said the bill has three main provisions including allowing towns, cities or villages to choose a ranked-choice voting system.
Communities such as Burlington have already adopted such systems for elections via charter changes. This would not apply to school board elections.
Another provision is to have a study committee “to examine issues with implementing ranked-choice voting in all elections for state and federal office.”
The third provision would be to require the use of ranked-choice voting for U.S. presidential primary elections, which would be implemented in the 2028 election.
A fundamental change
Will Senning, director of elections and campaign finance for the Secretary of State’s Office, clarified that this bill would require ranked choice voting for the 2028 presidential election regardless of what the study committee comes up with.
“[This will] really represent a fundamental change to the way elections are administered in the state and we just need to understand and take very seriously what is proposed in the bill,” Senning told committee members.
He added that it “really presents a new method of calculating results for elections on both voting on the front end for the voters and how those results are processed and calculated after the election once the ballot box is closed.”
New chain of custody challenges with memory cards/ballots
Ranked choice voting will require a new form of transportation of paper/electronic voting records which was not required before.
“Ballots and/or data from the tabulators and from the towns that count votes by hand in Vermont, about 100, and then another 140 that use tabulators, ballots from those towns will have to be transported to a central location in order to perform the ranked-choice voting results calculation. Ballots from the hand-count towns and either memory cards which is the way that the data is pulled off the tabulators in towns if not the ballots from the towns themselves,” Senning said.
He said this will need to be achieved in a manner that will maintain public confidence in election integrity.
“We’re going to have to contemplate how those transportations are going to happen from all of those hand-count towns in Vermont to a central local and then the memory cards from the tabulator towns,” he said. “[It’s] Easy in a sense because it’s not a big bag of ballots, but it’s still a memory card that has to make its way from 140 towns here under some kind of time frame under some mode of transmission that we have to come up with that people will believe is secure and free from manipulation of those cards.”
Going to take longer
According to Senning, results in a ranked-choice voting will be delayed and the ultimate certification of elections will take longer than it does currently.
He noted that the amount of time it now takes — about a week for general elections and a bit shorter for primaries — is “already too long for a lot of folks.”
Senning acknowledged that the public at large has a strong amount of skepticism about elections and he said committee members should be mindful of this.
The apparent winner won’t always win
The nature of ranked-choice voting is that the apparent winner — that is, the candidate who received the most votes at first — won’t always win.
“I think it’s really important for us to think about the perception of our election results, the finality of elections, and acknowledge the fact that it’s going to take longer,” Senning said. “There’s a very real and increased possibility that the person who appears to have won on election night may not ultimately win when the final result is certified. I mean that’s the nature of the system itself.”