History of Vermont Voting Systems

Unlike some states where voters once were required to loudly proclaim their choice of candidates in front of election officials, Vermont favored the use of the secret ballot from its very inception. Vermont’s constitution has always required voters to "bring their votes for Governor, with the name fairly written." This language was the core of an early constitutional challenge to one of the early changes to our voting procedure. By the early 1800s, candidates, parties and newspapers were printing lists of endorsed candidates that voters could submit as a ballot. The Vermont Supreme Court ruled in Temple vs. Mead (1832), that the use of printed ballots instead of handwritten ballots was acceptable, since the language in Section 47 "was intended to secure to the freemen the privilege of voting for the officers therein named by ballot. . ." rather than to require any particular method of balloting. The same section of language was cited by the Vermont Supreme Court during the civil war to invalidate absentee voting by Vermont’s soldiers away at war, using the logic that "bring" is not the same thing as "send." In the twentieth century this has obviously been reversed.

The biggest change to the procedure of voting in Vermont occurred at the end of the nineteenth century with the adoption of the "Australian ballot." Today the phrase "Australian ballot" is used to distinguish voting by a secret ballot as opposed to a face-to-face town meeting, but that is not what the term actually means. Prior to 1892, ballots listing only favored candidates were provided by candidates, parties and newspapers. The Australian innovation adopted by Vermont was the use of government-printed ballots that listed all qualifying candidates.

Ironically, at the same time that Vermont started using the "Australian" ballot, Australia was beginning the process of abandoning it, in favor of the modern Australian ballot, which is a preference ballot used for IRV and PR elections.

In the first Vermont election using this new system, there was some protest of the new voting procedure. Formerly, voters could prepare ballots at home or simply pick up party ballots on their way to the polls. Voters had no need to mark ballots, they simply had to deposit them in the ballot box. Now the voters had to go into a voting booth and find the names of their preferred candidates and mark the right number of boxes depending on how many seats were being filled for each office. There were long lines waiting for ballots and spaces in polling booths, accompanied by many complaints. Rather than repealing the Australian ballot, the legislature increased the ratio of polling booths the towns had to provide from one for each 75 voters to one for each 50 voters.

The use of the Australian ballot also had implications for independent candidates and smaller parties. How was it to be decided which candidates to list on the official ballot? Unlike some states, Vermont has maintained a manageable petition threshold that allows any serious candidate to appear on the ballot. The major change in Vermont’s ballot access laws was the adoption of state-sponsored party primaries in 1915.

There have been a few small changes to Vermont’s "Australian" ballot over the years. These include listing candidates in alphabetical order grouped by office, rather than by party, as is still done by some other states to facilitate straight party voting.

Some of the more far-reaching changes to Vermont’s voting system have occurred in this century. The most well-known change, of course, is the change in what groups of citizens were included as part of the eligible voting pool -- extending suffrage to women and young people between the ages of 18 and 21.

A less well-known but fundamental change has been the abandoning of the majority requirement to win election. The acceptance of plurality winners is a rather recent change in Vermont election law. For most of Vermont’s history, all single seat races required a majority to elect. In the case of legislative seats, if there was no majority a new vote was held, repeatedly, until a majority was achieved. For Congress, this meant elections a month or so apart. For state representatives, it meant re-voting on into the night or the next day at a town meeting. The majority requirement was relaxed for most elections by 1916, allowing plurality winners after a limited number of re-votes. Majority rule was finally repealed altogether for all offices, other than constitutional offices, only in 1940.

The shift to the plurality rule came in the midst of a period of one-party predominance in which no statewide election was won by any candidate other than a Republican for over a century. Because of the hegemony of just one, and later two, political parties, this abandonment of one of the most basic principles of democracy -- majority rule -- went unnoticed. With only one or two choices, candidates were sure to win with majorities anyway. It is only with the reappearance of third party and serious independent candidacies since the 1970's that the potentially undemocratic results of plurality rule would again be a potential problem.

As State Archivist Gregory Sanford noted in his testimony to the Commission, Vermont has continually changed its voting system in response to political stimuli.