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Rutland Herald


Keeping elections democratic
December 11, 2002

Your Nov. 11 editorial about the spoiler problem in multi-candidate races raised an important issue, but ignored the solution. This is ironic, because your March 9 editorial dealt with the same issue and endorsed the best solution - instant runoff voting.

In most circumstances, having more choices is good, but only if the decision-making process is rational. Unfortunately, our current voting method can't handle any more than two choices without risking undemocratic outcomes. The spoiler problem is real, but also avoidable.

The framers of the Vermont Constitution attempted to solve the spoiler problem by explicitly rejecting the notion that the candidate with the most votes should automatically win. They decided that holding a new election was impractical. The state couldn't wait in the days of horses and bad roads for a new election, though they did require new elections for electing members of Congress, figuring Congress could proceed without one of Vermont's congressmen. (We had six at one time.) Their solution may rankle our modern sensibilities, but it is still better than locking in the spoiler problem with the risk of the anti-democratic election of a candidate that most voters think is the worst choice.

We can't escape from the spoiler problem by eliminating independents or third parties. Regardless of how one feels about third parties and independents, there will always be those who feel excluded by the two big parties yet feel they have issues to raise or something to offer.

The intent of the framers to avoid the spoiler problem was undone this year by the strategy of several leading candidates pledging to support the top vote-getter and withdrawing if they weren't that candidate. It is likely that a majority of all voters preferred Peter Shumlin over Brian Dubie for lieutenant governor. After all, 59 percent of voters rejected Dubie, and most of them apparently wanted someone closer to the center or left.

But Shumlin's pledge locked in the spoiler problem and prevented the majority of voters from getting him as their preferred lieutenant governor. In the governor's race, 55 percent of the voters did not choose James Douglas. Our method of voting just does not allow us to know whether Douglas or Douglas Racine was preferred by a majority of voters. When a clear majority has not been achieved, a concession statement, rather than being a "gracious gesture," as stated in your editorial, could be considered an affront to the voters who voted for that candidate.

Fortunately, the means for banishing the spoiler problem for good are at hand. If the Legislature adopts instant runoff voting before the 2004 election, we will be assured of direct popular election of our leaders by a majority vote, with no spoiler problem. In the event an actual tie, or a natural disaster or other unforeseen circumstance prevents the voters from electing a majority winner, even with instant runoff voting in place, keeping the emergency backstop of election by the Legislature in the event of "no election" is worthy of retaining in the constitution.

In a nutshell, instant runoff voting combines a runoff into the regular election by allowing voters to rank candidates in order of choice. If no candidate is the first choice of at least half the voters, a runoff count between the top candidates can be conducted without the cost or hassle of a second election.

It is odd that the Rutland Herald editorial failed to mention the option of instant runoff voting, considering your March 9, 2002, editorial favored it as the solution to the spoiler problem. Quoting the opening and end of that excellent editorial you wrote:

"Instant runoff voting is an election procedure that brings common sense to the question of how to elect a candidate with a full majority of the vote. . .

. The voters are the ones served best by a system allowing them to vote for the candidate they favor rather than against the candidate they fear."

Amy L.S. Bond of Essex Junction is director of the League of Women Voters of Vermont.

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