Burlington Free Press
Attorney general says runoff voting
requires constitutional amendment
By Nancy Remsen
February 25, 2003
The Vermont attorney general
advised the Legislature on Monday that a constitutional amendment
would be necessary before the state could use instant runoff voting
to elect the governor, lieutenant governor or
"Voter approval of a constitutional
amendment is legally required before the runoff system can be
applied to elections for the offices of governor, lieutenant
governor and treasurer," wrote Attorney General William Sorrell to
the chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee.
Under an instant runoff system, voters
would mark ballots with not only their first choice for governor,
but also their second choice. If no candidate received a majority of
the votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes would be
eliminated. The second choices on these ballots would be added to
the tallies for the other candidates, then the ballots would be
recounted to see whether any candidate won a majority.
The current procedure for electing the governor, lieutenant
governor and treasurer is outlined in the state Constitution and requires a
candidate to receive a majority of the votes to win. When no candidate
receives 50 percent of the votes, the Legislature picks the winner from the
top three candidates. Different rules apply for the secretary of state
This past fall, no candidate for
governor or lieutenant governor received a majority of the votes.
The Legislature picked the winners in January, selecting in each
case the candidate who received the most votes. Gov. Jim Douglas had
received 45 percent of the votes in November. Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie
received 42 percent.
Lawmakers could have legally
selected the second or third place finishers-- a possibility that
worried many voters and prompted calls for change.
The alternatives to the current
system include instant runoff voting and a constitutional amendment
that would allow the candidates with the most votes to win -- even
if they received fewer than 50 percent of the votes.
Sen. Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille, proposed
that the Legislature pass a law adopting an instant runoff system.
She said Monday that she disagrees with the attorney general about
the need for a constitutional amendment.
Her bill, she said, would make the results
from an instant runoff "advisory." The Legislature would have the
final say, which would meet the requirements of the
"If we all had the information of what the
results would have been of people voting this way, we could ignore
it," she said, "but I wouldn't want to be running in the next
election doing that."
Bartlett sees instant runoff voting as a
way to show voters that their choices matter. She said she worries
that changing to a plurality system --in which the person with the
most votes wins even with less than a majority -- could give an
office to someone most voters opposed. That would sour them on the
Sen. John Bloomer, R-Rutland, argues that instant runoff voting
is too complicated. "Any potential gain is overwhelmed by the
confusion it would cause."
He has proposed a constitutional amendment
that would allow candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and
treasurer to win by plurality as long as they received at least 40
percent of the votes cast. If no candidate received 40 percent, his
amendment calls for the top two candidates to compete in a runoff
election on the first Tuesday in December.
Sen. William Doyle, R-Washington, is
chairman of the Government Operations Committee, which would
consider any bills and constitutional amendments that would change
election procedures. He prefers to move to a plurality system to
elect the governor, lieutenant governor and treasurer, because that
is the general practice for all other elected offices. "I think it
has served our state well," he said.
He also prefers a constitutional amendment
to a law, he said. "If you make the change statutory, you could have
a new system every two years."
Amending the Constitution would take at
least five years. Two legislatures would have to pass the proposed
constitutional change. Voters would have their say in 2006, Doyle
said. The first election run under a new system would be in
Sen. Jim Condos, D-Chittenden, vice chairman of the Government
Operations Committee, said he has received a lot of messages about instant
runoff voting. "Whether it is the right thing or not, I don't know,"
he said. "But I think we owe it to Vermont voters to air this thing."