Lessons from Burlington

by Rob Richie // Published March 4, 2010

Let me cut to the chase. Despite winning in five of the city’s seven wards, the use of instant runoff voting (IRV) for mayor was repealed this week by a margin of less than 4% in Vermont’s largest city of Burlington. It’s a disappointment, particularly with a growing appreciation in Vermont for IRV. Those strongly opposing repeal of IRV included the state’s leading civic groups – VPIRG and state arms of the League of Women Voters and Common Cause – and a host of political leaders, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, Gov. Howard Dean and nearly every state legislator from the city.

IRV in Burlington only has been used in two mayoral races, as it was not adopted for city council races. Its defeat stems from a simple fact: the only candidate ever to win with IRV in Burlington is current mayor Bob Kiss, who won two elections for mayor in 2006 and 2009 in hotly contested races where no candidate won 40% of first choices. In a city with three major parties, all with roughly comparable support, victories for only one party's nominee meant that a majority of voters had yet to see their first choice win in an IRV race. Kiss was the majority choice over his top opponents in 2006 and 2009, to be sure, but with new controversies in the his administration in the past year, it was clear that in a referendum on the mayor this year, he would lose.

Opponents of IRV were well aware of this fact, and did everything they could to attach IRV to Kiss. At a televised debate, they carried signs saying “Where’s Bob,” suggesting Kiss should be the one defending IRV. They called out at the polls “if you don’t like Bob Kiss, vote to repeal IRV.” They focused on the 2009 election results, suggesting that IRV had cheated voters into a Kiss victory so that backers would have to explain how in fact Kiss had earned his majority win. After Tuesday’s vote, one city councilor called on Kiss to resign – showing the direct link in many voters’ minds between IRV and the mayor.

IRV opponents were led by Kurt Wright, who lost the 2009 race in a cliffhanger. Wright had led after the count of first choices and continued to lead in the count until the field was reduced to two. In the final instant runoff, a majority of voters ranked Kiss ahead of Wright, giving Kiss re-election. Within weeks of his defeat, Wright's supporters were in the streets collecting petitions for repeal – joined by some backers of other losing candidates. Their drive seemed to falter after initial enthusiasm, but then a public scandal enveloped the mayor, and petition gatherers rushed to finish getting their repeal on the ballot. In the repeal, the two wards where Wright ran most strongly voted against IRV by a margin of two-to-one after supporting it when first passed in 2005. The rest of the city voted 60% to keep IRV.

I don’t have a shred of doubt that if Kurt Wright or 2009 Democratic nominee Andy Montroll had won in 2009, IRV would be safe in Burlington. Some might grumble about the system to be sure, but more than one party would have been successful with IRV, and the anti-incumbent energy directed to Kiss wouldn’t have been part of the campaign – and indeed there wouldn’t have been a repeal campaign in the first place.

Reformers can’t control who wins and loses elections, but the lesson from Burlington is they need to be aware that many voters measure the value of a reform by who wins under the new rules. In the case of Burlington, exit polls after the first IRV election in 2006 found overwhelming support for IRV, with voters four times more likely to support it than oppose it and only a handful saying they found it confusing. But that was before they knew who won. As soon as you have winners and losers, as of course you always will, some voters will rethink their assessment. If the same candidate wins twice in a city where that candidate commands perhaps a third of the vote, you have to be ready.

This helps explain that keeping reform can sometimes be harder than winning it – at least until it’s understood as a change that doesn’t favor one side. The irony is that because IRV has been such a potent electoral vehicle -- winning by landslide margins in ballot measures in a range of cities such as Memphis (TN), Oakland (CA) and Minneapolis (MN). that it can be won before there is much grassroots effort to introduce it to voters. There’s a gut appeal to winning majorities in one round of voting and to being able to rank candidates instead of just “X”-voting for them. That’s good for IRV, but dangerous when those first results come in, and backers of losing candidates finger the new rule as the reason their favorite candidate lost.

Local backers [www.fiftypercentmatters.com] did a terrific job in responding to the attack on IRV, although formed their campaign too late to fully dispel some of the rampant misconceptions being spread by opponents. I hope that education is done because Burlington remains a city with a strong coalition that backs IRV and a problem to fix. The city has three major parties and a history of independent candidates, and the system just voted in – one allowing a candidate to be elected with just 40% of the vote – brings back the problems of “spoilers” and minority rule.

More broadly, backers of IRV in other cities and states adopting IRV must work to keep reminding people how the system works and to be clear in explaining the results after they happen, starting with the media (which did an inadequate job in Burlington after the 2009 election, leading some to think that some voters had two votes and others just one). New cities facing that opportunity this year included Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro in California.

Going even more broadly, that same education challenge exists for all reformers – never take your wins for granted, and keep working to make the case for your change even after you win it. You will reach a point where your proposal is the accepted status quo – for IRV backers, that will happen with the idea of voting becomes ranking. At that point your reform probably is safe, as it seems to be in other countries using IRV for decades such as Australia and Ireland.

What American reformers have going for us is that the constraints of our two-choice system are bitterly resented by a growing number of Americans. IRV represents a means to accommodate more options and encourage more inclusive modes of campaigning in a range of settings, such as nonpartisan elections and primaries. The case for IRV remains as strong as ever, and appreciation for its value keeps expanding. Losses hurt and lessons from them must not be forgotten, but our nation’s shift to “rank the vote” continues.