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Rutland Herald

Runoff backers tout poll
By David Mace
March 11, 2002

Supporters of instant runoff voting for the election of the stateís highest offices ó including governor ó say the results of Town Meeting Day votes show Vermonters are in favor of the change.

At a press conference Monday, Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz and groups that are pushing the adoption of instant runoff voting, or IRV, pointed to the fact that 51 of 54 towns considering non-binding referenda on instant runoff voting approved the measure.

ìWe feel ... this is a sending a pretty clear message to the legislators,î said Marge Gaskins, president of the League of Women Voters of Vermont.

They called on the Legislature to seriously consider a bill that would change Vermontís election laws in time for the 2002 elections.

ìIím a strong supporter of instant runoff voting ... because it makes democracy what we expect,î Markowitz said. ì ... People tell me that democracy is majority rule, and theyíre very surprised when they find itís not majority rule; itís plurality rule.î

That, she said, contributes to cynicism about the electoral process.

Majority rules means that a candidate must get more than half the total votes. Plurality ó the standard for most elections in the country, including president ó means the candidate who gets the most votes wins.

Under Vermontís constitution, if candidates for governor, lieutenant governor or treasurer donít get 51 percent of the popular vote, the 150 members of the Vermont House of Representatives and 30 members of the Senate vote by secret ballot on the three top vote-getters for each office.

A bill proposed in the Legislature would adopt IRV, a process by which voters can vote for their first choice and also note their second or third preferences as well.

If no candidate got more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, there would be a second counting of the ballots. The first-choice votes for the candidates who got the lowest vote totals wouldnít be counted.

Voters who only marked one choice, or who marked the same candidate as their first and second choice, would see their vote unchanged.

But voters who chose a candidate as their first choice that wasnít one of the top vote-getters and indicated a second choice would see their second choice counted in the runoff.

The concept would allow voters to vote for a third-party candidate without having to worry that by doing so they might be giving the election to a candidate they are opposed to, something called the ìspoilerî effect.

That was widely believed to have happened in the 2000 election, when Democrat Howard Dean, Republican Ruth Dwyer and Progressive Anthony Pollina ran in a three-way race. Some Pollina supporters may have voted for Dean instead, fearful that the Legislature might choose the conservative Dwyer if Dean didnít get more than 50 percent.

The same could happen in both the governorís and lieutenant governorís races this year, which are expected to have at least three candidates each.

Markowitz and supporters of IRV said if the proposed law passed it could be used in this yearís elections and not violate the Vermont Constitution, which could not be amended until the 2008 elections.

But Professor Peter Teachout, a specialist in constitutional law at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, questioned whether IRV could survive a court challenge if one were brought.

ìThe framers (of the Vermont Constitution) clearly envisioned the Legislature taking an important role in the election process,î he said. ì(With IRV)... you now have a system where the General Assembly is cut out of the process, and that is not what the framers imagined. That is not to say itís not constitutional. Just that it could open the process up to a serious constitutional question.î

Leaders of both major parties expressed opposition to the idea.

Scudder Parker, chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party, said an amendment to the Vermont Constitution would probably be necessary, and it should simply make the top vote-getter the winner.

He questioned whether the non-binding poll results were a true reflection of Vermontersí wishes.

ìI think most people were thinking itís fair if you have a situation where the concept of a plurality was met,î Parker said. ìWhether or not they were implicitly endorsing the details of instant runoff voting, I donít know.î

Joseph Acinapura, state chairman of the Vermont Republican Party, said leaders believed the ballot would be confusing to voters, and that he personally didnít like the idea of changing voting methods during an election cycle.

ìI donít think itís fair to the voters ... the candidates, or the system of the parties,î he said.

Markowitz, a Democrat, said simply amending the Vermont Constitution to let the top vote-getter win wouldnít address her concerns, and that IRV would help third parties and give voters more choice.

ìThe issue of who is the spoiler is irrelevant,î she said. ì... Bringing more voices (into the race) is good for democracy.î

Contact David Mace at [email protected]

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