How instant runoff voting is affecting campaigns in Burlington

by Terry Bouricius // Published February 12, 2009
Here in Burlington (VT), the second mayoral election using instant runoff voting is less than three weeks away, with voting on March 3rd. There is a spirited campaign with five candidates, four of whom are seen as having a serious chance of winning.

The incumbent mayor from the Progressive Party, Bob Kiss, is running for re-election. His opponents are the current president of the city council, Republican Kurt Wright, Democratic councilor Andy Montroll ( a past city council president), Dan Smith, an independent whose father was a Republican Member of Congress and who is running as a "post-partisan" "entrepreneurial" candidate, and a political novice, Green Party candidate James Simpson.

Under the old city charter, Burlington would likely be looking at a runoff election a few weeks later (with the desperate flurry of campaign fund-raising, mud-slinging, and added tax-payer expense that generally entails). However, with the ranked-choice ballot, Burlington will finish its mayoral election on March 3.

Under old plurality election rules (the "winner" is the one who gets the highest vote total, even if far less than 50%), common in most U.S. elections, whenever there are more than two candidates, there is a danger of a "spoiler" scenario. There have been absolutely no such concerns in Burlington's multi-candidate mayoral races with IRV. With plurality elections, candidates on the same side of the political spectrum, who appeal to the same slice of the electorate, often seek to demonize each other. Again, this dynamic is absent under IRV.

Because candidates know they may need the second choices from voters who support other candidates as their top pick, the campaigns are remaining civil, and attempting to reach out to a broader constituency, than would be typical in a plurality election. A door-knocker for one of the campaigns recently knocked on our door, and had a conversation with my wife. When told that we were supporting one of the other candidates, this campaign worker said, "I can see that your mind is made up, but I hope you'll look over this leaflet and consider giving my guy your second choice."

Unlike some alternative voting methods, it isn't possible to win an election under IRV rules simply by being most voters' second choice, even if no voters thought you were the best. Because candidates can't win under IRV if they don't get a sizeable chunk of first-choices, the candidates are also seeking to differentiate themselves on a variety of city issues, to stand out from the pack.  IRV strikes a desirable balance of needing both substantial core support (first choices), and broad appeal (second or third choices from supporters of other candidates).

Just like in 2006, when IRV handled five choices and produced an instant runoff winner before 9 pm on election night, administrators are confident in a smooth election. You can see more about this year's election and the 2006 IRV election on thei r website.

Burlington is clearly being well-served by its instant runoff voting system.