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Rutland Herald

Group states case for instant runoff
By David Mace
December 17, 2002

MONTPELIER A coalition of groups looking to change Vermonts election laws is renewing its call to implement instant runoff voting for the election of the states highest offices, citing the controversy surrounding this years contests.

At a State House press conference Monday, the Voters Choice Coalition announced a petition drive to pressure the Legislature to pass an instant runoff voting bill when lawmakers convene in January.

We have a clear example this year of why we need to reform our current system, said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which has long supported instant runoff voting.

One of the worst things you can do in a democracy is tell people their votes dont count, he said. And thats essentially what we have happening in this election.

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 who refused to pledge theyd concede if they finished second of plotting to steal 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 Womens 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 theyd 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 candidates 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 spoiler charge sometimes leveled at third party candidates.

In the lieutenant governors 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, hes unaware of that ever happening.

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 voter cynicism.

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 thats not a given.

Gov.-elect Douglas believes the outcome of an election should not be a hypothetical, said his press secretary, Jason Gibbs. He also has very serious questions about the constitutionality of an instant runoff law.

According to Gibbs, Douglas is not at all enthusiastic 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 a plurality, like that used in federal elections rather than requiring the winner to get more than 50 percent.

In his view, we must take this opportunity to engage in a serious discussion about how best to improve Vermonts election laws, Gibbs said. He does not believe IRV is the best solution.




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