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Burlington Free Press

Democratic Runoff
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.

A 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.

The Vermont 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.

To 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.

For 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.

Part of 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 governor.

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.

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