Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger issued his first-ever veto on Thursday, quashing a Progressive-led effort to reinstate ranked-choice voting in Queen City elections.
In a one-page memo, Weinberger wrote that he objects to "the timing, avoidable expense and substance" of the city council's July 13 resolution to bring back ranked-choice voting. The measure, passed by a slim 6-5 majority, sought to place the question on the November ballot.
"I am returning the Resolution ... to you unsigned," the mayor wrote in the August 6 memo. "I do not take this action lightly."
Weinberger wrote that it would be "wasteful" to spend $45,000 on separate local ballots this fall when the question could be called on a Town Meeting Day ballot for no extra cost. The city budget is already constrained this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, he added.
The ballot question "will divide and distract" from the city's pandemic response and racial justice efforts, Weinberger continued. He said that debating the "polarizing and divisive issue ... will consume community attention and resources at a moment in which those finite resources are urgently needed elsewhere."
Also known as instant runoff, ranked-choice voting lets voters rank candidates in order of preference. Burlington's resolution states that a candidate who earns a majority of the vote wins, but if none does, the election would go to a runoff.
In each round, the person with the fewest votes would be eliminated, and all votes would be assigned to a voter's top remaining candidate. The process would continue until only two candidates remain, and the candidate with more votes wins. Burlington's current system only requires a 40 percent majority to win.
Switching Burlington's voting system would require a charter change, which must be approved by the Vermont legislature and governor. Had the November 2020 effort prevailed, it's unlikely that lawmakers would have signed off in time for Burlington's next mayoral race, in March 2021. Weinberger has not yet said whether he'll seek reelection.
Ranked-choice voting has proven controversial in the past. Burlington voters repealed the system in 2010 after former mayor Bob Kiss earned enough second-place votes to best his challenger, Kurt Wright, despite the candidate leading Kiss in the first few voting rounds.
Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) decried Weinberger's veto as "inherently undemocratic." He charged that Weinberger and council Democrats — who voted against the July resolution in lockstep — have made ranked-choice voting a partisan issue.
Cost is not a good reason to cancel the vote, Hanson said, especially when the high turnout for a presidential election will provide a telling referendum on the voting system.
"It also is very dangerous rhetoric of, 'Democracy is too expensive, and
we don't want to hear from more people on an issue that affects our city,'" he said. "It's a slippery slope."
That sentiment was shared by Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy group that promotes open government and accessible elections. In a statement on Thursday night, Burns wrote that Weinberger's veto "is absolutely one of the most undemocratic moves by an elected official I’ve seen in the last 20 years.
"It’s not just that he’s opposing a reform that opens the electoral process up to new voices at a time when they are desperately needed," Burns continued. "It’s that he alone is canceling the public’s right to vote on this matter for themselves. It is outrageous."
Hanson doubts the Progressives would be able to override Weinberger's veto when the council meets Monday, since it takes a two-thirds majority. But he hasn't given up on ranked-choice voting, either. On Saturday, he's hosting an online informational event about the voting system, which was scheduled before the mayor's announcement. He said the issue isn't dead until voters have their say.
"When we're talking about a voting system that we use in Burlington, that decision needs to be made by the voters," Hanson said, adding, "If we actually let the voters weigh in on this, they're gonna approve it."