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St. Albans Messanger

How your vote could count
by Deborah Markowitz, Secretary of State
February 17, 2003

There are many ways in which to measure the health of a democratic society. How many of its children live in poverty?  How many of its people have access to adequate food, housing, health care?  How much investment is there in education, the arts, preserving history? Looking at many of these indicators, Vermont has a lot to be proud of.  However, as Vermont's Secretary of State I believe we must also measure the health of a society by looking at the level of participation in its democracy.  And in that regard, I believe we have a way to go.

In last year's general election just over 50% of the eligible voters in Vermont chose to participate.  The other half stayed home.  Why?  We have made it very easy to vote.  Anyone can choose to vote early or to do it all by mail.  It was easy for voters to learn about what the candidates stood for.  A record number of debates were held all across Vermont, and candidates and their parties spent millions of dollars reaching voters with advertisements talking about what they saw as the important issues for the state.  Then why did so many Vermonters not bother to cast a ballot on Election Day?

In my travels around Vermont I have heard from some Vermonters who have said that they did not vote because they believed their vote - even if it was cast - wouldn't count.   In Vermont, if the Governor, Lieutenant Governor or Treasure get less than 50% of the vote the legislature gets to elect these leaders in a secret ballot vote.

But I believe that this is just half the story. Our democracy is less than healthy today because there is a critical disconnect.  A disconnect between what Vermonters expect - and reality.  Most people believe that democracy means majority rule - that our leaders are chosen by vote of the majority. But with ten people running for governor, the candidate who won received barely 45% of the vote.

When people see our highest elected officials being elected to office with not even a bare majority of support from the voters it is not surprising that voters get cynical.

I believe it is time for change.  Time to bridge the disconnect and bring
to Vermont elections true majority rule.   Time to take elections away from the Vermont legislature to let Vermonters' votes count.

This year the legislature will be considering two bills, S22 and H82, both of which propose to change our voting system to ensure majority rule. These Instant Runoff Voting proposals would permit us to hold a runoff count in the event that no candidate in a race earns over 50% of the vote without the time and expense of running a new election.  The proposals are simple - when voters cast their ballot not only do they indicate a top choice - but also get the option of indicating a second or third choice.  If no candidate is the first choice of at least 50%, all but the top two vote-getters are eliminated and all ballots are counted again.  Just like in a traditional runoff election, voters whose top candidate was eliminated will have their next choice count. In this way the candidate preferred by a majority of voters wins, regardless of the number of candidates in a race.

Sometimes actions speak louder than words.  By staying home on Election Day, Vermonters have made it clear that we must take steps to strengthen our democracy. What will really make the difference is to give people reasons to vote - majority rule will help get us there.

Deborah Markowitz is Vermont's Secretary of State

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