When Vermonters pull the curtains behind them in the voting booth they have two things in hand; a ballot and a pen to fill in the little oval that marks their choice. It’s a decades old process. Even the slow ones among us have figured it out. We may struggle with our choice and regret it afterwards, but we know what to do, and we know we can only vote for one person per office.

If a bill recently passed by the Vermont Senate becomes law, that ritual changes. Big time. You will still get a ballot and something to write with but you will need to rank your choices, first, second, third, etc. Instead of learning about one candidate, or two, you may need to learn a little something about the entire list. [In some races, that would be quite a homework assignment.]

If the bill becomes law, any town in Vermont could use the ranked choice process beginning next year if the voters and local officials approve it. It would be 2028 before the ranked choice system could be used in a presidential primary. It would be 2026 before it could be used in statewide elections. And a special commission would be put in place to study the challenges the ranked choice system might engender.

Vermont would not be the first to change from a traditional voting process to ranked choice voting. Far from it. Maine and Alaska have done it. So have a score of municipalities across the country. In Vermont, Burlington has done it in the past, and is flirting with efforts to do so again at an expanded level.

But why the interest? Advocates push ranked choice voting for several reasons. First, it forces all races to have a candidate who wins by a majority, over 50 percent of the votes cast. Not a plurality, or less than 50 percent, which occasionally happens when numerous candidates are on the ballot for the same office. [Not a commonplace thing in Vermont.]

Under the ranked choice system, if someone doesn’t win a majority on the first vote, then the person who finished last is eliminated, and the second choice votes of that candidate are distributed to the other candidates. This process repeats until the recalculated vote gives a candidate a majority.

The ranked choice system is pushed by advocates who  also believe it could lessen the divisiveness and the nastiness in our campaigns. Candidates would be hesitant to fling mud at their opponents if they understood they might need their support. It also eliminates the spoiler effect; no one would have to worry about being accused of splitting the vote and giving the election to someone who would not have won otherwise.

But no voting process is without its faults, and that includes a ranked choice system. The appropriate question in Vermont is whether this is a solution in search of a problem. Do we have a polarized voting population in Vermont, and are our campaigns so nasty they need to be reengineered? Would Vermont use the ranked choice system much since we struggle to get enough people interested in running for office at all? Would a more complicated system reduce the number of people who voted? Would a more complicated system infuse fresh doubt about the accuracy of our elections, thus adding to the lack of trust that now prevails? Would a ranked choice system play to the benefit of extremists on either end of the political spectrum, and work against moderates? Specifically, wouldn’t ranked choice voting play to the advantage of progressives who do a better job of getting their rank and file to run for office, and maybe, just maybe that explains why the progressives are pushing the legislation?

But the progressives’ advantage aside, if the goal is to get people out to vote, why would we choose a process that makes voting more complicated? If we don’t have many key races in which the winner fails to get more than 50 percent of the vote, then why turn our existing system upside down? If we don’t suffer from negative campaigns, then why pursue a new system that would make no difference?

Again, it seems like the ranked choice voting bill is a solution in search of a problem and could make things worse, not better.

By Emerson Lynn

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