After an election is over - especially a traumatic
election like the one we just went through - the last thing that
most of us want to think about is voting and ballots and the like.
In fact, however, the new alignment in the state legislature offers
a real possibility for fundamental change: if they wanted to, the
Democrats in the Vermont House and Senate might be able to start us
down the road toward Instant Runoff Voting.
Instant Runoff Voting is the system used in countries like
Australia, and cities like San Francisco and Cambridge. Instead of
simply choosing the candidate for, say, governor, you get to rank
the contenders. Imagine a three-way governor's race that featured,
say, Tom, Dick and Harriet. You would list them in your order of
preference, and all the #1 votes would be tallied. But if no one had
a clear majority, then you'd eliminate the lowest vote-getter: Dick,
say. And then you'd go through his ballots to see who his supporters
had ranked second and add them to the appropriate piles. When you
were finished, someone would have the biggest stack, and they'd be
the new governor.
The system's attributes are obvious. You can vote for a third party
candidate without worrying that you're acting as a spoiler, since
your vote would eventually be counted for your second choice
candidate; that is, everyone can vote their conscience, and no one
is simply voting their conscience. And whoever eventually wins will
be the choice of a majority of the electorate: the specter of the
legislature picking a winner from among three minority candidates
But there's another, subtler benefit as well: there's suddenly a
strong incentive for candidates to avoid really nasty negative
campaigning. You don't want to completely alienate the supporters of
your opponent, because you hope that some of them will list you
second on their ballots. The kind of nasty radio ads that suddenly
started appearing at the end of the last campaign might well
backfire on their sponsors; instead of building divisions, you'd
want to build coalitions. As a young newspaper reporter, I covered
several Instant Runoff Voter elections in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
and they were spirited and hard-fought without a trace of pettiness.
Politicians are reluctant to change the system that got them
elected. But Vermont's leaders have a well-deserved reputation for
statesmanship, and now is the time to exercise it.
I'm Bill McKibben from Ripton.
Environmentalist Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at
Middlebury College. His most recent book is "Enough: Staying
Human in an Engineered Age."