MONTPELIER - Big surprise: Senator Hinda Miller (D-Chittenden) voted against the Senate bill (S.108) that would implement instant runoff voting (IRV) for Vermont's three elected congressional members. Miller lost Burlington's 2006 mayoral race to Bob Kiss in a history-making demonstration of the preferential vote-tallying system. Burlington became the third city in the U.S. to count voters' second-choice candidates.
S.108 passed the Senate, 15-13, on April 26. It currently sits in the House Government Operations committee. In February, House reps had crafted a bill of their own, H.196, which is more expansive. H.196 suggests that IRV be used in the election of five additional statewide offices, including governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state. That bill would also implement IRV for the election of U.S. president and vice president.
Proponents of IRV argue that the system encourages third-party candidates on both sides of the political spectrum. Both Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman Peter Welch have testified at the Statehouse in support of IRV. Opponents counter that the system goes against the "one person, one vote" maxim by undermining traditional campaigning and voting strategies. Speaking for "many legislators," Miller asks, "Why tinker with [an electoral system] that's not broken?" Republican Governor Jim Douglas suggests that IRV might defy the Vermont Constitution if expanded to include state offices besides the congressional ones.
A 2006 exit poll of 1096 Burlington voters conducted by the Vermont Legislative Research Shop reported that 63.4 percent of Burlington voters "said that they liked the system;" 53.3 percent wanted IRV expanded to all statewide elections. The report also noted that support for IRV seemed to correlate with party affiliations - 80.3 percent of Progressives favor the system; almost half of Republicans gave it a thumbs down, presumably because they perceive it as a threat in a state with multiple parties on the left.
IRV has been used in Australian congressional elections for more than 80 years. Most U.S. voters, however, aren't familiar with it. The best way to understand the process is to see it in action. Three candidates - A, B and C - are competing for a Vermont office. Instead of choosing a single candidate, voters rank multiple candidates in order of preference. If one candidate wins a 50 percent majority of votes, the election is over - no IRV is required. But if candidate A wins 40 percent of votes, B wins 35 percent, and C wins 25 percent, no candidate claims victory in the first round of voting. In the second round, Candidate C is eliminated, but his or her votes "run off" to his supporters' second-choice candidates - either A or B. The runoff process repeats until one candidate receives a majority of votes.
The system has been implemented sporadically in American cities - by Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1997 and San Francisco, California, in 2004. IRV has been approved, but not enacted, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Oakland, California. If S.108 passes the House, Vermont would become the first state in the nation to elect its congressional delegates with IRV.
Senator Miller asserts that IRV is not only confusing but would be expensive to implement - a poor use of taxpayer dollars. She says some legislators are estimating IRV's cost at "close to a million dollars."
That speculation was fueled by a March 7 IRV feasibility study published by Secretary of State Deb Markowitz - hers is one of the statewide offices that could be decided by IRV. The highest cost estimate for the system is $600,000. That figure would apply to an election with "four runoff counts or runoff races" printed on a three-page ballot. According to the report, up to two IRV races could be implemented on a single-page ballot in non-presidential elections. A single "instant" runoff count for a one-ballot election would likely cost between $45,000 and $80,000. For two runoff counts? Between $90,000 and $160,000. For three? Between $135,000 and $240,000. The report also estimates that a voter-education program for IRV would cost between $60,000 and $90,000.
House Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Chittenden) alleges the secretary of state's cost projections assume a wider implementation of IRV than S.108 does - wide enough so that legislators get "freaked out" by the math. He estimates the associated costs of S.108 at between $100,000 and $200,000.
If S.108 passes the House, Governor Douglas could sign the legislation, veto it, or allow it to become law without signing it. Douglas says he won't commit to any of those options in advance, but maintains that he's opposed to the concept of IRV on principle. The governor adds that he has "Constitutional questions" about applying IRV to races for governor, lieutenant governor and treasurer.
Dan Johnson-Weinberger, an election lawyer from Chicago, proposes a different logic. He studied IRV while serving a four-year term as general counsel for Fair Vote, a Maryland-based IRV advocacy group.
Johnson-Weinberger points out that under current law, when a Vermont candidate doesn't receive a majority, the vote goes to the general assembly. In other words, the concept of a "runoff election" is as old as Vermont's constitution: Thirty-five percent of federal and statewide races in Vermont history did not result in a majority. The most recent case occurred in 1998, when Vermont's general assembly elected Lieutenant Governor Douglas Racine by "runoff." If IRV passed at the state level in Vermont, according to Johnson-Weinberger, future races in which no candidate claims a majority would be decided in an "instant runoff" election by the voters themselves. He sees this as a more democratic system than a standard "runoff."
"Neither the language . . . of the Vermont constitution, nor the intent of [its] framers, nor the method by which the Vermont Supreme Court has interpreted the Vermont Constitution is any barrier whatsoever to the general assembly's authority to implement IRV," Johnson-Weinberger claims.
Pearson adds that more Vermonters identify with independent, rather than traditional, parties. "I really see this reform as honoring that reality and saying, 'We want a system that handles more than two voices.'"
A pro-IRV election reform advocate in Vermont who requested anonymity suggests that by signing a May 2005 Burlington charter amendment in favor of IRV, Governor Douglas has already expressed approval for the concept of IRV. "If the governor had legislative concerns about the legitimacy of IRV, he was obligated to express them" before signing the charter amendment, the advocate claims, adding that if the governor were to veto the present bill, his decision would suggest a "partisan advantage."
Douglas dismisses the suggestion and claims that he supported IRV in Burlington merely to honor the will of that city's constituents. There's "nothing partisan about [my position]; it's just my point of view," he notes.
The governor admits he hasn't read the recent Markowitz report - or, for that matter, any of the reports on IRV from inside or outside the U.S. "I'm philosophically opposed to [IRV], so it isn't a matter of details, reports or arguments," he stresses. "I think this is the wrong way to go."