The History of Vermont Elections Without a Majority

Volume XXI of the State Papers entitled Vermont Elections 1789-1989, published by the Secretary of State, is the primary source for this section.

Part 1. Election of State Officers

Vermont has had frequent and serious problems with the failure to popularly elect constitutional officers by a majority vote. Due to this 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, there have been 11 state officer elections with no majority winner. Of these 11 elections, 7 went to the General Assembly for decision. The General Assembly had to step in to elect one or more statewide officers in 23% of all election years.

In most cases, the General Assembly elected the candidate who had the highest popular vote total. In some of these cases, however, that plurality candidate may well not have been the preferred candidate of the majority of voters. Some examples: In nine gubernatorial elections in the 1840's and 1850's, if the popular vote totals of the Democratic candidate and the Free Soil Democratic Party or Liberty Party candidate are combined, they constitute a majority, yet the Whig candidate had a plurality, and was elected by the General Assembly. In 1912 the combined vote total of the Democrat (31%), Progressive (24%), Prohibition (3%) and Socialist (2%) candidates for Governor equaled 60% of the vote. The Republican, with just over 40% of the popular vote, however, was elected Governor by the General Assembly.

In a number of cases, the General Assembly elected a candidate who had come in second, or even third, in the popular vote. Some noteworthy examples follow. In 1789 Thomas Chittenden had 44% of the vote, but the General Assembly elected Moses Robinson instead, even though he had received only 26% of the popular vote. In 1813, although the Democratic-Republican Party candidate, Jonas Galusha, had the popular plurality and was just 155 votes short of an absolute majority, the General Assembly elected Federalist Martin Chittenden Governor by a vote of 112 to 111. The most recent example of the General Assembly’s rejection of the plurality candidate occurred in 1976 when Republican T. Gary Buckley, who had come in second in popular vote was elected by a three-vote margin in the General Assembly over the plurality winner, John Alden. In this case, the candidate who had forced the race into the General Assembly was Liberty Union candidate John Franco (to the left of both the Democrat and Republican), indicating a majority of the electorate would almost certainly have selected Alden instead of Buckley in a one-on-one or instant runoff election.

An election of special importance in the history of both the Republican and Democratic Parties of Vermont occurred in 1853. Contrary to common belief, the first Democratic Governor of Vermont was not Phil Hoff, but rather John Robinson, elected by the General Assembly in 1853. Robinson had come in a distant second in popular vote (38%). Whig candidate Erastus Fairbanks had 44% and Lawrence Brainerd, the Free Soil Democrat, had 18%. After nine days and 26 ballots the General Assembly finally elected the Democrat Governor and then went on to do likewise in the election of a Lieutenant Governor and Treasurer (in which races the Democrats had also come in second). There are two reasons noted for the General Assembly’s rejection of the plurality candidate. First, Fairbanks, the incumbent Governor, had irritated many members of the General Assembly with his support for a temperance bill that had passed by one vote the previous year. And second, the Free Soil Democratic Party members of the General Assembly struck a deal with the Democrats that a Free Soil Democratic Party member would be elected Speaker of the House. The Free Soil Democratic Party leadership outside the statehouse, including defeated gubernatorial candidate Brainerd, repudiated the deal. The resulting split in the party led to the creation of the Republican Party in Vermont in 1854.

The most extreme examples of complete dysfunction 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."