Burlington City Council voted Monday night to put three charter changes on the 2023 Town Meeting Ballot, including resolutions that would implement ranked-choice voting for mayoral elections and all-citizen voting in all municipal elections.
Charter changes in Vermont must first be approved by city voters and then passed through the state senate and house of representatives as well as receive approval from the governor. The city will have public hearings on the three charter changes before Town Meeting Day for residents.
Two of charter changes received unanimously support from the City Council. The ranked-choice voting resolution was opposed by some councilors because of the inclusion of school commissioners and ward election officers.
An all-resident voting charter change would allow non-U.S. citizens who reside in Burlington to vote in municipal elections. Voters would need to be legal U.S. residents, 18 or older, have taken the Voter’s Oath and be registered to vote to participate in elections. The resolution defines a legal resident as “any non-citizen who resides in the United States on a permanent or indefinite basis in compliance with federal immigration laws.”
There are 2,370 Burlington residents who are not U.S. citizens, according to the 2020 American Community Survey, which is 5.3% of the city’s population.
Winooski and Montpelier had all-resident Town Meeting Day elections in 2022 after the the state Legislature overrode Gov. Phil Scott’s vetoes on the measures in June 2021. Scott said the all-citizen voting resolutions created inconsistencies in voting laws in Vermont and “separate and unequal classes of residents potentially eligible to vote on local issues.”
All-resident voting was almost on Burlington’s Town Meeting ballot in 2020, but City Council decided to withdrawal the charter change from the ballot and send it to committee, according to information in the resolution.
If the resolution makes it past the state Legislature and governor’s desk, it will allow non-citizens to vote for mayor, city councilors, school board members, city election officers and ballot items pertaining to the city of Burlington. Legal residents will also be allowed to run for office in the city once they register to vote.
“I am confident it is a legal and appropriate political step to take to really make, when all is said and done, the promise that Abe Lincoln made at Gettysburg,” City Councilor Gene Bergman, P-Ward 2, said Monday. “That we have a government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
Ranked-choice voting for mayoral, school commissioners, ward-election officers
The Council voted 7 to 3 to put the question of whether to extend ranked-choice voting to more municipal elections, including mayoral elections, on the ballot in March.
Voters will choose a city councilor using ranked-choice voting for the first time in a special election for the East District in December after a charter change to implement ranked-choice voting in City council elections was approved by more than two-thirds of Burlington voters in March 2021 and by Scott with no signature. The governor said in his letter to lawmakers that he was letting the charter change happen because the ranked choice voting will only be used in Burlington City Council elections.
Ranked-choice voting would change the requirements to win an election from 40% of the vote to over 50% of the vote. In standard ranked-choice voting, voters rank their candidates in order of preference instead of voting for just one, and if no candidate receives over 50% of the vote on first-count of the votes, the candidate with the fewest number of first-choice votes is taken out of the running. The votes of people who voted for the now-out-of-the-running candidate are then transferred to their second choice candidates. This process repeats until one candidate has won over 50% of the vote.
The resolution lists the benefits of ranked-choice voting including the ability for more people to run for office without risking “splitting the vote,” the encouragement of positive campaigning and the elimination of run-off elections.
Flexibility in polling place locations
City Council is in the middle of redrawing the lines of Burlington’s voting districts. During discussions, councilors kept running into the issue of where polling places would be if the current polling place for a redrawn ward was no longer within the boundaries of the ward. Because there are not many buildings that can effectively hold elections, the Council decided there needed to be more flexibility in determining polling places than what is currently allowed.
If passed, the charter change would allow City Council to determine polling locations at least 30 days before elections in consultation with the City Clerk’s Office and ward election officials. A ward’s polling place could be co-located with another ward’s polling place as long as each are separate and distinct. A polling place could also be outside ward lines as long as it is within close proximity to the ward.
Contact Urban Change Reporter Lilly St. Angelo at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @lilly_st_ang