elections need to be reformed
By Marge Gaskins
October 11, 2002
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.
tackle such reform, it is necessary to examine a confusion that is
common among voters, politicians and the press about the meaning of
Many people assume the following terms mean the same
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.
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.
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