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Brattleboro Reformer


By Eesha Williams
January, 2003

In March 2002, Brattleboro, Guilford, Halifax, Jamaica, Marlboro, Newfane, Vernon, Wardsboro, and 47 other Vermont towns formally called on the state Legislature to enact a new system of voting. The system, known as instant runoff voting, requires that a winning candidate receive a majority of votes, rather than a plurality, as occurred in races for the states two top jobs in November.

The Legislature took no action following the Town Meeting Day vote. But, supporters of instant runoff voting say they have high hopes for enactment of a change during the legislative session that starts Wednesday. They say many Vermont voters are unhappy with a system that allowed Republican Brian Dubie to be elected lieutenant governor with 41 percent of the vote, while Democrat Peter Shumlin and Progressive Anthony Pollina -- who espoused similar views on most major issues -- together received 56 percent of the vote.

If it had been Dubie against either Shumlin or Pollina, its fair to say Dubie would have lost, said Rep. Virginia Milkey, D-Brattleboro. Gov.-elect James Douglas does not support a change in the voting laws, said spokesman Jason Gibbs on Friday. He has very serious reservations about the constitutionality of instant runoff voting and believes there is too much room for administrative and ballot-box confusion, Gibbs said. Gibbs declined to say whether Douglas would veto legislation if it were passed by the Legislature.

Windham countys legislative contingent is mostly behind instant runoff voting, according to interviews this week. Instant runoff voting isnt perfect, but I certainly prefer it to the current system, said Sen.-elect Rod Gander, D-Windham. I will vote for it. Sen.-elect Jeanette White, D-Windham, said she hadnt made up her mind about the issue and wanted to study it further. Rep.-elect Sarah Edwards, P-Brattleboro, said: I will definitely vote for IRV. Its critically important because it will really open up the political system. Milkey said she would support the change. Rep. Daryl Pillsbury, I-Brattleboro, said he would vote for instant runoff voting so Vermonters could vote based on their hopes, not their fears. I voted for Nader in 2000 and helped elect Bush, he said. In 2002, I voted for Pollina and helped elect Dubie. Im tired of it we need instant runoff voting. Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, said he was undecided. This system has worked for a couple hundred years, he said. Someone would have to convince me to change it. Rep.-elect Richard Marek, D-Newfane, said he spoke in favor of instant runoff voting at Newfane town meeting last year, and would vote for it this year in the House. The governors opposition is a major roadblock, but well have to see if he cant be persuaded, Marek said. Rep. Steve Darrow, D-Dummerston, said he would vote for the change. It would more accurately reflect the will of the voters, he said. Rep. Michael Obuchowski, D-Rockingham, said he would support it, but would also fight for funding for a public education campaign about the new system, to try to prevent voters from possibly being scared away from the polls. Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, said she would vote for instant runoff voting, but would also consider regular runoff elections as an alternative. Rep. Robert Rusten, D-Halifax, said he supported the concept but wanted to see specific legislation before committing to vote for it. Efforts to contact Reps. Patricia ODonnell, R-Vernon, Richard Hube, R-Londonderry, and Rep.-elect Philip Bartlett, R-Dover, were unsuccessful on Thursday and Friday.

Under instant runoff voting, voters mark on their ballots a first, second, and third choice of candidates, instead of just a first choice. If more than 50 percent of voters choose a single candidate as their first choice, that candidate wins. But if no candidate wins the majority of first-choice votes -- as happened in November with Douglas and Dubie -- vote counters automatically eliminate the lowest vote-getter and then do a recount to determine which candidate wins election by a majority.

Ireland uses instant runoff voting to elect its president, and Australia uses it to elect its House of Representatives. Cambridge, Mass., uses instant runoff to elect its city council, and San Francisco uses it to elect its mayor. Vermont Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz endorsed the change in a speech at a meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State in Rhode Island in July 2002.

Last year, the League of Women Voters, the Vermont AFL-CIO, USA Today, the Burlington Free Press, and the Rutland Herald endorsed instant runoff voting. In December 2002, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, a Republican, endorsed the procedure for state elections, saying, under the current system, whenever there are more than two candidates in a race, there is a risk that the majority of voters will split among two or more appealing candidates, leaving a candidate with only narrow support as the top vote-getter. The Republican Party of Utah believes in majority rule. Thats why we adopted IRV for party elections and U.S. congressional nominations. Paul Burns, director of the Vermont Public Interest Group, said lobbying for instant runoff voting would be a top priority for his group this year.

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