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Bennington Banner

State elections need to be reformed
By Marge Gaskins
October 11, 2002

With at least three viable candidates in both the governor and lieutenant governor races, there could be no winners in this November's elections. Vermont's constitution requires a candidate to get a majority (more than 50 percent) of the votes, to win these offices. If no candidate receives a popular majority, the general assembly picks a winner in January. The League of Women Voters of Vermont is part of a coalition seeking to reform our election system so that a majority of voters can directly elect all statewide offices.

To tackle such reform, it is necessary to examine a confusion that is common among voters, politicians and the press about the meaning of "winner."

Many people assume the following terms mean the same thing.

1) Majority Rule: "the candidate preferred by the majority of voters should win."

2) Top Vote-Getter Rule: "the candidate with the most votes should win."

In fact, these rules can be in direct conflict under Vermont's current election method.

Imagine a situation where an unpopular candidate, who can only muster 35 percent support, loses to an opponent's 65 percent. Should our voting system allow that 35 percent candidate with such narrow support to be declared the winner? No.

But under a "top vote-getter" rule that can happen. If one or two additional candidates run against this unpopular candidate, the 65 percent majority of voters may end up dividing among the opponents, allowing the candidate who can only get 35 percent support to end up with more votes than any other single candidate. Under "majority rule," some sort of runoff procedure would be used to allow the majority to prevail over the unpopular candidate. However, under the simplistic "top vote-getter" rule, the 35 percent of voters, who prefer the unpopular candidate would defeat the 65 percent majority, merely because more candidates ran.

Accustomed to two-way races, many people make the false assumption that the top vote-getter is necessarily the rightful winner. Some Vermont newspapers even survey legislators about the prospect of the governor's race being thrown to the legislature, asking whether they will vote for the candidate who "wins" their district, who "wins" statewide, or for the candidate they think is best. The mistaken assumption that the plurality leader is the "winner" (whether in a district or statewide) flies in the face of the principle of majority rule.

The best way to assure election of state officers by a majority of voters is by adopting instant runoff voting (IRV), as San Francisco did recently. Instant runoff voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. Thus a runoff count can be conducted to determine which candidate is actually preferred by a majority of voters, without the cost, lower turnout, or hassle of a separate runoff election, or giving that decision to the legislature. By narrowing the field to two final candidates, IRV assures that the candidate with the most votes at the end of the count will also have a majority of the vote - thus satisfying both rules.

In contrast, a simplistic "top vote-getter" constitutional amendment would lock in a "spoiler" dynamic, where a vote for your favorite candidate may actually help elect a candidate you like the least. The framers of Vermont's constitution had a good reason for insisting on majority rule. When there are more than two candidates, the plurality leader could have narrow support. To avoid a logistically impractical delayed runoff, they settled on an imperfect method of resolving an election when there was no majority winner - letting the legislature choose. That imperfection can now be remedied with IRV, which was invented in New England around 1870.

The League of Women Voters led an effort that put a question on 56 town meetings last March, about whether the legislature should adopt instant runoff voting to allow the majority of voters to elect statewide offices. The referendum passed in 95 percent of the towns with overwhelming margins. IRV can be adopted with or without a constitutional amendment, and the next legislature should make it a top priority.

Marge Gaskins is the president of the League of Women Voters of Vermont .


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