1. Vermont’s voting system is broken, and needs fixing.

Is our current system prone to problems? If so, have these problems been frequent? Have they been serious when they did occur? Are they likely to become more frequent or more serious?


The fundamental problem with plurality election rules is that they allow a candidate that is the least preferred choice of a majority of the voters to be declared the winner. While it is probably true in most cases that the plurality winner is indeed also the candidate most preferred by the majority (in Australia, the initial plurality candidate ends up winning the majority with transfers typically 70-80% of the time), there is no way of knowing if this is true in any particular case without something like IRV. No one really argues over the fact that plurality rules allow for very undemocratic outcomes, violating the principle of majority rule. The question that remains is "Is it worth doing anything about it?"

Some have suggested this is such a rare problem that it hardly warrants a disruptive change. This argument assumes most races will continue to have majority winners (as was common during the century of Republican hegemony in Vermont). It also assumes that in those occasional races when there is no majority winner, the plurality winner is most likely the majority-preferred candidate anyway.

The occurrence of no-majority has been far more common than this argument suggests. In Vermont’s statewide general elections, there have been 120 races with no majority winner. Due to a failure of any candidate to attain a popular majority, statewide officers have been elected by the General Assembly, instead of by the people, 69 times in Vermont’s history, including both Lieutenant Governor and Treasurer in the state’s first election in 1778. This occurred 21 times in the case of Governor, 26 times in the case of Lieutenant Governor, 17 times in the case of Treasurer, twice for Auditor of Accounts, twice for Attorney General, and once for Secretary of State. The most recent such election was the 1998 lieutenant gubernatorial race. Since 1972, looking at both constitutional and federal elections (excluding presidential races), there have been 16 statewide races with no majority winner. Of these 16 elections, 7 went to the General Assembly for decision. Over Vermont’s entire history the General Assembly had to step in to elect one or more statewide officers in 23% of all election years. If we look at all statewide races, in 37% of all election years at least one race had a result less than a majority.

The problem of plurality election rules has gone relatively unnoticed in modern time, first because of the hegemony of the Republican Party and most recently by the dominance of just two major parties. That reality, however, appears to be changing. Recent presidential and state elections, with Perot-style and other independents, have already returned us to the days of plurality rather than majority outcomes. Most importantly, the advent of campaign finance reform, with public financing, nearly assures there will be more than two credible candidates in many statewide elections.

Even if one doesn’t accept the notion that plurality elections will be more common in the immediate future, the potential downside of having the selection of a Governor delayed till the General Assembly elects someone in January is far more serious than in the past - and it has been very serious in the past. The most extreme examples of complete disfunction and breakdown occurred just two elections apart. In 1835, William Palmer, the Anti-Mason Party candidate for Governor, received 46% of the popular vote, Democrat William Bradley received 38%, and the 

Whig candidate, Charles Paine got 16%. After 63 ballots the General Assembly still could not select a Governor. They finally adjourned for the year leaving the state with no Governor. Lieutenant Governor Silas Jenison served in the absence of an elected Governor.

In 1837 there was no majority winner in the Treasurer’s race. With the General Assembly deadlocked between the top two vote-getters, they finally compromised by electing the third place candidate, who had received a mere 3% of the popular vote. This "winner," Norman Williams, refused to serve. But the joint assembly of the House and Senate had already dissolved. The House attempted to reconvene a joint assembly to fill the vacancy, but the newly created Senate refused. The state went the year without an elected Treasurer. The Governor, perhaps illegally, but pragmatically, picked Allen Wardner, who had not even been a candidate, to "supply the vacancy in that office, until the same can be filled in the manner directed by law or the constitution of the state."

Even if the plurality winner in the Governor’s race would have won a majority in a runoff, there remains a significant downside for the state by the prolonged period of uncertainty from November until January. If there is no majority Governor-elect in November, there is no budget or administration being prepared, and one can imagine the deal-making between potential Governors and 180 legislators for their votes ("You want a road or office building in your district?"). Such a transition could be devastating to the smooth functioning of government and public confidence.

The voting system has changed =>