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Burlington to decide legal resident voting, ranked choice on Town Meeting Day

A voter looks through paperwork in a booth at the polling place at the Integrated Arts Academy on Town Meeting Day 2021 in Burlington. Burlington voters will decide on several charter changes on Town Meeting Day in March. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — Burlington voters will get a second look at whether all legal residents can vote in city elections, following the City Council’s unanimous approval to send the charter change to voters on Town Meeting Day.

While non-citizens are not able to vote in state or federal elections, the proposed charter change aims to allow non-citizens who are legal residents to register to vote in city elections.

The council also passed two other election-related charter changes that will head to voters in March. One would extend ranked choice voting to all city offices. Another proposed change would give the city flexibility in where polling places are located.

This will mark the second attempt at passing a legal resident voting charter change in Burlington. In 2015, Burlington residents voted down the measure. It was again passed by the City Council before Town Meeting Day in 2020, but the council reversed its decision and removed the question from consideration, saying that more time was needed for public engagement.

This year, the council’s charter change committee said they sought more public engagement to address concerns, holding multiple public meetings. Ben Traverse, D-Ward 5, said in an interview in July that the committee was working with the city’s Community and Economic Development Office to help facilitate input from the community and to build support.

Similar changes to legal resident voting were passed in Montpelier and Winooski. Montpelier was the first municipality in the state to approve the change in 2018, when it passed by a 14% margin. Winooski followed in 2020, passing easily with a 2-1 margin. Those changes were vetoed by Gov. Phil Scott after legislative approval, but the legislature overrode the vetoes.

All charter changes under consideration by Burlington voters in March would be subject to the Legislature’s approval.

The council also advanced a proposed charter change that would extend ranked choice voting to more city offices. The city previously enacted ranked choice in 2005, but it was ended in 2010. In 2020, councilors aimed to bring the policy back, but it was vetoed by Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger. Following Weinberger’s first veto as mayor, a compromise was found where ranked choice would be applied to City Council elections only.

The resolution on Monday night passed with a vote of 7-3. Those opposed said they felt the previous approval of ranked choice for City Council elections meant they would wait until after those elections had taken place to get more public input on rolling it out to further city offices.

The first use of ranked choice for the City Council will take place in December, when voters in the East District head to the polls for a special election to fill that empty council seat. Council elections taking place on Town Meeting Day will also be decided by ranked choice.

Joan Shannon, D-South District, proposed an amendment to remove school and ward officials from the proposal, arguing that the school board positions were not engaged in the process by the charter change committee. The amendment failed and those positions remained in the resolution. 

Council members who supported extending ranked choice voting to all elected city positions said they were doing so to avoid what Traverse called “ballot confusion” where some city elections were ranked choice, but others were not. Ali Dieng, I-Ward 7, echoed that concern and pointed specifically to the immigrant community where such differences on the ballot would be a barrier to voting.

The proposed charter change would enact ranked choice to all city officers: mayor, City Council, school commissioners and ward election officers.

A third charter change would give the city flexibility in where it locates polling places. 

A key sentence in the proposed charter change read that “polling places shall be located in each ward, unless a more accessible facility is available outside the ward which is in as close proximity to the ward in which each voter resides.” It also goes on to say that if more than one polling place is located in a single building, each will need to be “separate and distinct from the others.”

The council approved the polling place resolution by a unanimous vote.

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