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?