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Rock Out With Your Caucus Out

Posted on Nov 14, 2011 by billsimmon in BTV, Life of Bill, politics, vermont | 6 Comments

In March of 1988, at the tender age of 17, I registered to vote for the first time at a Frank Zappa concert in Burlington’s Memorial Auditorium. I turned 18 before the 1988 presidential election and cast my first-ever ballot in November of that year. I remember voting for almost all of the Democrats (including for Michael Dukakis, who lost not only the electoral college but the state of Vermont too), but I did vote for Republican Jim Jeffords that year (as well as in each of his two reelection bids).

Thus my life as a participant in this democracy began. Tonight, I was back at Memorial Auditorium as a participant in the process once more. Standing there, holding my caucus ballots in the exact spot I’d taken Vermont’s Freeman’s Oath 23 years and eight months prior, I couldn’t help but feel a little giddy at how awesome Vermont politics are. I mean, Town Meeting, right? That process alone makes Vermont so much cooler than the other 49 states, politically. But even in Burlington, where we eschew Town Meeting for a more traditional election day, it feels really personal and meaningful in a way I imagine most other Americans have never experienced.

Case in point: today’s Democratic Mayoral Caucus.

Here’s the deal, for those of you not tuned into the nitty gritty of BTV politics:

Burlington is really a three-party town. There are the Democrats, Republicans and Progressives. The Progs are the new kids on the block but they wield real political power in Vermont and Burlington’s current embattled mayor, Bob Kiss, is a Prog. The 14-member City Council is dominated by Dems but has GOP, Prog and Independent members too.

Due to a series of debacles that I won’t get into here, the current administration is foundering. Democrats see an opportunity to reclaim City Hall. If they nominate a really good candidate, the argument goes, they can unite left-leaning Burlingtonians and win the mayor’s office in March. But the Progs haven’t said what they’re going to do. If Mayor Kiss runs for reelection or if he doesn’t and the party nominates a strong candidate, liberal and progressive Burlingtonians will be split and perennial Republican Mayoral candidate, Kurt Wright, is waiting in the wings to swoop in and take advantage such a situation (it’s worth noting that this is the first mayoral race since BTV voters decided — stupidly, IMO — to kill IRV, meaning a so-called “spoiler” candidate can take advantage of a three-way race and win without a majority of the support of the voters).

So going into today’s Democratic Mayoral Caucus there were four strong Dem candidates: Tim Ashe, Bram Kranichfeld, Jason Lorber and Miro Weinberger. The caucus works like this: you show up and register. Any registered Burlington voter can participate, regardless of party affiliation. Then you vote in the first round. Then they count all the first round ballots and announce the results, right there. As soon as a candidate gets more than 50% of the total votes cast, that candidate becomes the Democratic nominee for mayor. Simple, right? In this case, just over 1,000 votes were cast in the first round and with four candidates, nobody got more than 50%, so we went to a second round. At that point, Jason Lorber (a friend of mine and a real mensch), who was the lowest vote-getter in the first round, dropped out voluntarily, leaving three candidates competing in round two.

We still lacked a nominee after round two. Bram Kranichfeld (the candidate I supported, BTW), received the least amount of votes in round two and he dropped off the list leaving only Ashe and Weinberger to battle it out in round three.

At that point, with our man out of the running, Emily and I cast our round three votes (my ballot was for Tim Ashe, my second choice going in) and headed back to the car and home. Apparently, a whole lot of people did the same thing, assuming that getting a 50% majority with only two candidates remaining was a sure thing. Ha. Famous last words.

Once home, the #BTVmayor hashtag on Twitter lit up. 1,085 ballots were cast in the third round, meaning 543 votes were needed to win. The final count was Ashe: 540 to Weinberger: 540, with 5 ballots spoiled for one reason or another.

What I’m still not clear on is why the caucus didn’t then go to round four. The ballots had already been printed and handed out in anticipation of a fourth round. I know a lot of people (including me) left the auditorium after the voting in round three, but it was made perfectly clear up front that if anyone left and wasn’t present to vote, they were SOL. The Dem leadership decided to wait and hold a run-off caucus at some future date to decide the winner, but it’s unclear who will vote in that or who will be eligible to be on that ballot or how it will all be handled. There was a process in place and the decision was made to abandon that process following the tie. I wasn’t there and I don’t like Monday morning quarterbacking, but I’d sure like to know why they didn’t immediately proceed with round four with the voters remaining in the auditorium or those close enough to race back there before the close of voting. Then at least we’d have an answer, assuming there wasn’t a second tie.

However this all winds up, I’m certain of one thing: It was important that I was there. It was important that every single individual was there. Every vote mattered. Good on you, BTV.

Seven Days’ Andy Bromage has a good write up of the event with all the voting totals here. Haik Bedrosian offers his two cents here. Fox44 has some more quotes here. WCAX has a headline claiming the caucus ended in “disarray.” Sigh. There was a tie. That’s hardly disarray. Seriously, WCAX. The Fox channel is kicking your ass, editorially. Time to do some soul-searching?





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  1. On November 14, 2011, Michael said:

    I think the only people allowed into the second caucus will be those on the 1300 some odd people who made it to the first one. The caused was suspended, not ended. so everyone who was there is in a state of caucususpention.

  2. On November 14, 2011, billsimmon said:

    That makes sense, but why suspend at all? Why not go by the rules as set?

  3. Slight correction: it was 542 votes needed for majority in the 3rd round, not 543. And in the first count of the votes in the 3rd round, it was 541 for Ashe, and 540 for Weinberger. Only after the recount were they even at 540 votes each.

    As for why they decided to wait to have a 4th round of voting… it just would have been ridiculous to leave the tie-breaker vote up to the few remaining people after so many had left thinking the result was already determined. Sure, it might have been within the rules, but how much confidence would the candidates or the voters have had in the outcome? I know I would have been really pissed if my candidate didn’t win after Ed Adrian practically encouraged people to go home after the third round. A lot of people threw their 4th round ballot in the trash on their way out.

  4. On November 14, 2011, billsimmon said:

    In my summary, for clarity, I decided to skip straight to the recount result, which was 543 needed to win.

    I hear you about the low number of remaining participants, but I still think the system should have played out according to the rules set in place. Maybe they could have allowed an additional 30 minute break before the 4th round to alllow the campaigns to get registered participants back. There was always a mathematical possibility of write-ins or other issues causing a no-majority result. We knew that when we left, we just bet on the odds being low. We lost, so we don’t get to vote in round 4. What’s not fair about that?

  5. On November 14, 2011, Meghan O'Rourke said:

    If Jason had not stepped out of the running, there actually would not have been enough paper ballots to proceed as the first two rounds were intended to have all four candidates on the ballot. A tie was an unforeseen possibility. Also, there was discussion on twitter about people pulling their ballots back out of the trash, which would also be against the rules which were in essence relying on an honor system – you can only put your own ballot in the box and you can’t get another if you lose it. However, your point is well taken in that there was a process to follow through on. I think in the end if they suspend and reconvene with the original registrants it would be the most democratic. Then again, do we really know what democracy looks like? (Hey, that could be a chant…)

  6. Bill, I think it was a case of faulty procedure that led to this course of action. From what I was hearing on CCTV later, the rules about counting spoiled ballots aren’t clear even in the by-laws. On the ballot itself, it says that any vote cast for a candidate who is no longer in the race will not count toward any total — which could arguably mean the total vote count itself. In turn, that could change the amount of votes needed to achieve a majority.

    Since there is ambiguity there — and the possibility of lawyers getting involved and things getting truly divisive — I can see why they decided to go with a resolution that both candidates could agreed upon.

    Of course, if people hadn’t already been there for 6 hours and gotten dog-tired, they wouldn’t have been so keen to leave after the 3rd round vote. IRV could have solved that problem. Oh well!

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