* board officer

Legislature needs to act on instant runoff voting

By John Anderson
Published May 29th 2005 in The Rutland Herald
Political observers in state and out are watching Vermont with fascination. A closer inspection of its national reputation as a liberal state reveals that more goes on in the Green Mountain state than its soundbite reputation indicates.

True, former governor Howard Dean projected a liberal image as a presidential candidate, but Vermonters know that he governed as a moderate who sometimes frustrated members of his own party and inspired a vigorous challenges from the leftist Progressive party. Even though Democrats comfortably control the Legislature, Gov. Dean was replaced by Gov. James Douglas, giving Republicans the top two seats in state government.

At the national level, Vermont is represented by former Republican-turned-Independent, Sen. James Jeffords, Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy and Independent Rep. Bernard Sanders. For over a decade, Vermonters were content to split their representatives, electing one Republican, one Democrat and one independent to work in Washington.

How is it possible that the same state that easily re-elects Leahy and Sanders came close to electing a conservative like Ruth Dwyer as governor in 1998? Scratch below the surface and it's not a case of Vermont being liberal or conservative: The dominant characteristic in Vermont's politics is its independence, a characteristic I greatly admire.

In contrast to much of the nation, Vermonters consistently give a significant percentage of their votes to people running outside the two big parties. It also has a rich tradition of democracy: Vermont is consistently top five in the country in voter turnout, elects more women than most other states, practices direct democracy through town meeting and has strong campaign finance laws.

The Progressive Party holds more seats in the Legislature than third parties control in the other 49 states. The party also consistently approaches and surpasses double digits in competitive statewide seats.

At the same time, with Vermont's conservative voters capable of growing restless with Gov. Douglas, it's likely just a question of time until a split on the Republican side – thus leading to more elections violating the fundamental democratic principle of majority rule.

Having third party and independent candidates may be frustrating for the two big parties. But Vermonters often don't respond to that frustration by ignoring independent candidates. A more democratic, effective solution is to improve elections so they can accommodate more than two candidates running for the same office.

It's easy to do. The solution is instant runoff voting, as endorsed by the Grange, League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, Dean and many others and as adopted handily this year by Burlington voters for future mayoral elections. The Legislature has considered instant runoff voting over the years, but now they should get serious about adopting this approach for the state's big upcoming statewide elections in 2006.

Used by millions of voters in other nations and in American cities, instant runoff voting is a simple mechanism whereby voters select a first choice just as they do now, but gain the option to rank additional candidates second and third. If no candidate reaches a majority of more than 50 percent of first choices, an instant runoff count takes place. The two top vote-getters advance to the runoff round of counting, and everyone's ballot counts for whichever of these candidates is ranked higher on their ballot — the same process as a regular runoff election but without the time and financial shortcomings of a second election. After the instant runoff, the candidate with majority support is elected.

The combination of Vermont's strong tradition of political independence and the support of so many of the state's leading political voices makes it particularly ready for instant runoff voting. This will not help one party more than others, but it will help voters, broaden debate on issues of concern and elect leaders committed to meeting the state's needs.

The timing is right for the Legislature to act. The 2006 elections are already generating a lot of excitement, with contested multi-candidate races possible for governor, lieutenant governor, U.S. Senate and U.S. House. I urge Vermont's political leaders to adopt instant runoff voting to guarantee their citizens can have a lively and rich debate among candidates without "spoiling" democracy.

John B. Anderson was a Republican member of Congress from Illinois and an independent candidate for president in 1980. He is chairman of FairVote — the Center for Voting and Democracy in Takoma Park, Md.