Burlington Free Press
March 13, 2002
More than any other state, Vermont
treats democracy as a form of intellectual stimulation and civic
enjoyment. Nowhere else, for example, would citizens get into a
lather energetically debating the virtues of the open vote versus
the Australian ballot, as frequently occurs on Town Meeting Day.
long simmering controversy in Vermont politics is how to elect the
top state officeholders, including the governor. The issue is now
before the 2002 Legislature, pushed by such good government groups
as the League of Women Voters and Secretary of State Deborah
Markowitz, the state's chief elections officer.
Constitution requires the winning candidate for the three top state
offices -- governor, lieutenant governor and treasurer -- to receive
a clear majority (50 percent plus one) of the votes cast. Otherwise,
the victor will be selected by the incoming General Assembly.
many people, that arrangement smacks of backroom politics, creating
the scenario of legislators scheming and horse trading gubernatorial
support to extract favors from the various candidates. The reformers
argue that to be true to the majoritarian spirit of the state
Constitution, Vermont should adopt a new way to count votes.
Markowitz, the solution is called instant runoff voting, which would
ask voters to list the office seekers in order of preference. If no
candidate receives a majority of votes, the contender with the
lowest tally would be dropped. The ballots would then be recounted.
The second-place picks of the supporters of the eliminated
contenders would be recorded for that candidate. The process would
continue until someone emerged with a numerical majority.
the appeal of instant runoff voting is that is sounds like fun.
Rather than select a single candidate and be done with it, voters
could make fine distinctions among all the candidates and line them
up accordingly. Also, the system introduces a strategic element into
voting because the ranking method creates interesting mathematical
possibilities that have to be considered.
Vermont is "a great size
to be the place that experiments" with instant runoff voting, said
Markowitz, expressing her enthusiasm to turn Vermont into a
laboratory in applied political science.
An alternative electoral
reform proposal would have Vermont elect its top state officers the
same way it selects its members of Congress -- the person with the
most votes wins, even if it means that someone can be victorious
with less than a majority.
For the current election cycle, the
issue is mainly academic. Any new voting method would require a
time-consuming constitutional amendment and couldn't be done prior
to this November's voting. With three strong candidates running this
fall in both the governor's and lieutenant governor's races, that
means the Legislature could well be the ultimate powerbroker. It
happened as recently as 1986 when legislators chose Madeline Kunin,
who had received less than 50 percent of the popular vote, as
Vermonters need to be better educated on instant runoff
voting before they will opt for such a sweeping change in election
procedures. It's an intriguing idea. If Vermont can find a better
way to help ensure that the majority truly does rule, it would be an
important contribution to the American democracy.