Group states case for
By David Mace
December 17, 2002
MONTPELIER ’Äî A coalition of groups looking to change Vermont’Äôs
election laws is renewing its call to implement instant runoff
voting for the election of the state’Äôs highest offices, citing the
controversy surrounding this year’Äôs contests.
At a State House press conference Monday, the Voter’Äôs Choice
Coalition announced a petition drive to pressure the Legislature to
pass an instant runoff voting bill when lawmakers convene in
’ÄúWe have a clear example this year of why we need to reform our
current system,’Äù said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont
Public Interest Research Group, which has long supported instant
’ÄúOne of the worst things you can do in a democracy is tell people
their votes don’Äôt count,’Äù he said. ’ÄúAnd that’Äôs essentially what we
have happening in this election.’Äù
The governor and lieutenant governor, Republicans James Douglas
and Brian Dubie, respectively, will be officially elected by the
Legislature next month because neither got more than 50 percent of
the vote as required by the Vermont Constitution.
Douglas won with 44.9 percent of the ballots cast, while Dubie
was victorious with 41.2 percent, but both of their Democratic
challengers, Douglas Racine and Peter Shumlin, conceded rather than
push the contests into the State House.
The pair had accused their Republican counterparts ’Äî who refused
to pledge they’Äôd concede if they finished second ’Äî of plotting to
’Äústeal’Äù the election in the Legislature, where a secret ballot of
all 150 representatives and 30 senators would have decided it.
VPIRG, along with the League of Women Voters, the Vermont Grange,
Common Cause, the Older Women’Äôs League, the AFL-CIO and Vermonters
for Election Reform, said they want to take advantage of the
attention the issue drew during the election to advance reform.
Their solution is instant runoff voting, a system that allows
voters to vote for not only their first choice, but to say whom
they’Äôd pick as a second, third or fourth choice.
If no candidate in the first round of counting gets more than 50
percent, the standard instant runoff method is to eliminate the
lowest vote-getter, then look at the second choices, if any, of
voters whose first choice is eliminated.
Those votes are given to the second-choice candidate the voter
indicated. After those votes have been added to the remaining
candidate’Äôs totals, if no one has topped 50 percent, the process is
repeated until someone does and is declared the winner.
Supporters claim the system will avoid the problem of having a
candidate win who was opposed by a majority of voters, and eliminate
the ’Äúspoiler’Äù charge sometimes leveled at third party candidates.
In the lieutenant governor’Äôs race this year, Shumlin and
Progressive Anthony Pollina split the political left with 32.1
percent and 24.8 percent, respectively. Under an instant runoff
system, voters who picked Pollina with their first choice, but
Shumlin with their second, could have helped push Shumlin past Dubie
and even over 50 percent.
Terrill Bouricius, a former Progressive lawmaker who now works
for the Center for Voting and Democracy, a group promoting instant
runoff voting, acknowledged that in multiple-candidate races it was
possible a candidate who came in third in the first round of
balloting could end up winning.
But he said that while the system has been used in Australia for
more than 80 years in its elections, he’Äôs unaware of that ever
While the petition is non-binding, supporters said that some
legislators were already working on draft proposals, and that
instant runoff voting would increase voter turnout, inject new ideas
into the political debate by encouraging more candidates, and reduce
Bouricius also said that the plan would not require amending the
Vermont Constitution, a long and difficult process. But some,
including constitutional scholars and Douglas, said that’Äôs not a
’ÄúGov.-elect Douglas believes the outcome of an election should
not be a hypothetical,’Äù said his press secretary, Jason Gibbs. ’ÄúHe
also has very serious questions about the constitutionality of an
instant runoff law.’Äù
According to Gibbs, Douglas is ’Äúnot at all enthusiastic’Äù about
instant runoff voting, which he thinks could lead to administrative
and voting complications. He thinks the law should be changed by a
constitutional amendment rather than by statute, and would support
having whoever got the most votes win ’Äî a plurality, like that used
in federal elections ’Äî rather than requiring the winner to get more
than 50 percent.
’ÄúIn his view, we must take this opportunity to engage in a
serious discussion about how best to improve Vermont’Äôs election
laws,’Äù Gibbs said. ’ÄúHe does not believe IRV is the best solution.’Äù