A grassroots group calling itself 50 Percent Matters! launched efforts Monday to keep the way Burlington elects its mayor intact.
Though careful to say its members are not uniformly supportive of instant-runoff voting, Rep. Jason Lorber (D-Burlington), the group's co-chair, said members do believe the city's mayor should be elected by at least 50 percent of the voters. The other chairperson is Rep. Mark Larson (D-Burlington).
Late last year, a group of residents successfully gathered enough signatures to put a question on the March Town Meeting Day ballot asking residents to repeal instant-runoff voting in the Queen City.
"We like the idea of our mayor being elected with 50 percent of the vote, or more," said Lorber. We're here today with a broad coalition. "Democracy thrives best when more than 50 percent of the vote counts. Having an election with only 40 percent of the vote undermines democracy."
The group includes 17 elected officials, most of them Democrats, along with several Progressives. As well, the Vermont League of Women Voters, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group and Common Cause of Vermont.
"The league believes that receiving only 40 percent of the vote is fundamentally undemocratic," said Keri Toksu, of the Vermont League of Women Voters. The league has supported IRV in local and statewide elections.
Democratic State Representatives Bill Aswad, Mark Larson, Jason P. Lorber, Kesha Ram, Rachel Weston and Suzi Wizowaty signed on to the group, along with Progressive David Zuckerman. State Senators Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) and Ed Flanagan (D-Chittenden) are supportive, as are Democratic city councilors Joan Shannon and Russ Ellis. School commissioners Vincent Brennan, Kathy Chasan, Fred Lane, Thomas Fleury, Keith Pillsbury and Amy Werbel.
The group has hired New North End resident Helen Hossley as its campaign manager, and is just beginning to raise money. It has $100 in the bank.
Lorber said not everyone in the group supports IRV, but they do support the idea of 50 percent of voters choosing mayor rather than electing the mayor with only 40 percent.
Toksu said her group does support IRV as it allows for greater voter participation in a runoff election by asking voters to rank their choices on election day. "It's shown that only about a third of the people who vote on election day will turn out for a runoff," said Toksu.
In 2005, Burlington voters overwhelmingly supported the move to elect the mayor via instant-runoff voting — by a nearly two to one margin. Prior to 2005, Burlington voters did approve a non-binding referendum, by a similar margin, to implement IRV.
After the 2005 vote, Burlington voters also approved a non-binding referendum to call on the legislature to have the governor elected by IRV.
After the announcement, Dave Hartnett, a founder of the Repeal IRV group in Burlington, said he personally is not opposed to having a higher threshold for electing mayor than 40 percent.
"I think that's something the city council could address, and they could set a higher number if they wanted," said Hartnett. The next mayoral election isn't until 2012.
His group has raised about $2000 to date.
With outside groups like VPIRG and Common Cause joining in the fight to keep IRV intact, it's clear that the March ballot item is drawing the attention of more than just Burlington residents.
Similarly, if you look closely at the people who have signed up in support of repealing IRV in Burlington you'll see plenty of names who do not live in Burlington: Republican State Reps Patti Komline, Greg Clark, Heidi Scheurmann, Sen. Diane Snelling, along with plenty of non-residents who own businesses in Burlington.
Conspicuously absent is the man who inspired the petition drive — Republican State Rep. Kurt Wright. Wright lost the mayor's race last year to Progressive Bob Kiss, after leading in the first two rounds of IRV. Many of his supporters cried foul.
A series of upcoming forums will be held at neighborhood planning assemblies throughout the city. As well, Seven Days and Channel 17 will host a debate about IRV on Thursday, February 18 inside the City Hall Auditorium. The event will take place from 7-8:30 p.m.
** UPDATE & CORRECTION **
While at the Statehouse this week, I spoke with several lawmakers whose names are listed on the "Repeal IRV" petition. Guess what? They didn't sign their names onto the site. Which make sense since Rep. Heidi Scheuermann's name is spelled wrong. Whomever typed it in spelled it "Heide Scheurmann". Oy vey.
"While I do not support Instant Runoff Voting and think Burlington made a mistake in passing it, I also do not live in Burlington and as chair of the Stowe Select Board, believe in local control," she told Seven Days.