Common Cause and League of Women Voters defend IRV in Burlington

by Terry Bouricius // Published April 3, 2009

Following the successful IRV election in Burlington (VT) in March 2009, some supporters of the narrowly defeated Republican candidate have launched a petition drive to repeal IRV. In addition to repealing IRV their proposed change would reduce the winning threshold from 50% to 40%, with a separate runoff election if no candidate for mayor reaches that plurality mark.

The advocates of this repeal are following a strategy pursued by Republicans in Ann Arbor, (MI) when they repealed IRV in that city in the 1970s after the first African American Democrat in that city's history came from behind during the IRV count to defeat the Republican leader in first choice rankings. The petition seeks to hold the repeal vote at a special election, rather than at any of the regular city elections prior to the next use of IRV in March 2012. The strategy of voting at a low-turnout special election is apparently intended to enhance their chances of victory (as it did in Ann Arbor), since the aggrieved Republicans will be highly motivated to turnout, whereas the Democratic voters, who generally favor IRV, but also did not win in the recent IRV election (the incumbent Progressive Party mayor won re-election), will be less motivated to turn out.

Common Cause is a national organization that has advocated for the adoption of IRV, and the local Vermont chapter has been a stalwart of IRV. It, along with civic groups like the League of Women Voters of Vermont, are highly critical of the effort to repeal IRV. Below is a news release from Vermont Common Cause.

For immediate release April 1, 2009

Vermont Common Cause calls Burlington IRV repeal petition ill-advised and contrary to state law regarding charter change

The Vermont chapter of the government reform organization Common Cause today issued a statement opposing the petition organized by Republican Burlington City Councilor Paul Decelles for a special election to repeal instant runoff voting (IRV) in that city.

Common Cause/Vermont Chair Sheila Reed said "The recent Burlington election using instant runoff voting was a resounding success, just as it was in 2006. In both IRV mayoral elections, over 99.9% of ballots were valid, and there was no talk of spoilers despite more than two strong candidates."

Recommended by Robert's Rule of Order, IRV combines the rounds of separate runoff elections into a single election -- allowing voters to indicate their runoff choices by ranking candidates in order of choice, rather than having to turn out for a second runoff election. It was adopted by voters in a March 2005 charter amendment by a two to one margin.

Ms. Reed criticized the petition as ill-considered and ill-advised "First, it is undemocratic and unnecessary to use a low-turnout special election to amend a city charter three years before the next mayoral election, and state law appropriately mandates that charter changes brought forward by petition be voted at a regular election and not at a special election." [see V.S.A. Title 17 2645 (a) (5)]

"Second, voters in 2005 not only voted by an overwhelming 2:1 for IRV, they also endorsed the principle of majority rule for electing the city's highest office," said Reed. "Decelles wants to allow a candidate to win with only 40% of the vote. This reintroduces the "spoiler" problem and would allow election of a candidate whom 60% of the voters believe is the worst choice

"Third, instant runoff voting is better than the separate runoffs that this petition would establish if no candidate wins 40%," said Reed. "Runoffs have lower turnout, force candidates to raise and spend more money, and cost the taxpayers." Comparing the turnout at the March 3rd regular town meeting with the turnout in the Ward 7 city council runoff election (which did not use IRV), turnout dropped by nearly half in the runoff election. While both separate runoffs and IRV tackle the "spoiler" problem, IRV maximizes voter participation and avoids extending the campaign season.

Reed suggested that Common Cause would support extension of IRV to all Burlington elections to avoid turnout debacles like the Ward 7 race. "In fact," said Reed, "Burlington shows us that it's time to use IRV for our statewide offices to avoid undemocratic results." Common Cause, along with other good-government organizations like the League of Women Voters and VPIRG, supports legislation this year to use IRV for gubernatorial elections, as backed by about 95% of the 56 town meetings that voted on the issue in 2002.