History of Vermont Elections

Part 2. Election of U.S. Congressional Representatives

In the case of election of federal officials, there has never been a provision for election by the General Assembly in the event of a failure to attain a majority. For most of Vermont’s history, when there was no majority winner, new elections were held until some candidate received a majority. It often took many such runoff elections, month after month, to find the candidate most preferred by a majority of voters. The most extreme case was in Fourth Congressional District in 1830. It took ten new elections, spanning 18 months, to get a winner.

These new elections were not exactly "runoffs," as we know them, in that anyone could run in the new election, including candidates who had not even been in the original election. However, they often served as runoffs, as candidates who finished poorly in one round would often drop out or be abandoned by their supporters for more viable candidates. In 26% of all biennial elections since 1791 there was no majority winner in one or more of Vermont’s congressional districts.

The election laws changed several times, making a chronological analysis difficult. For example, for a few years in the early nineteenth century Vermont elected its Representatives to Congress in at-large elections, with the top six candidates elected. Any analysis concerning attainment of a majority is confused by this voting system. In 1916 the majority requirement for this office was completely eliminated, but by then the Republican Party dominance was so overwhelming that hardly any elections were settled with less than a majority. The most recent election for Congress won with a mere plurality was in 1994, when Bernard Sanders won with 49.8%. In 1988 Peter Smith won the U.S. House seat with 41%. In that election, independent Bernard Sanders had 38%, and Democrat Paul Poirier received 19% with a bit over 2% divided among the remaining three candidates.

When Vermont held new elections as a result of no majority in the original election, the plurality winner more often than not ended up winning a majority in a subsequent runoff. However, in 16 elections the ultimate winner, eventually given a majority by the voters, was not the original plurality "winner." One noteworthy example of this occurred in Vermont’s first congressional election in 1791. Matthew Lyon originally received 36% of the popular vote, Israel Smith had 35% and Isaac Tichenor got 29%. In the new election, Tichenor’s total dropped to 2% and the original second place candidate, Smith, was elected with 68%.

In 1832, after the particularly protracted battle in the Fourth District in 1830-2, the General Assembly compromised the democratic principle of majority rule to avoid such stalemates and changed the majority requirement, so that whichever candidate was the top vote-getter after the second runoff, whether by majority or plurality, would be declared elected. This was further changed in 1848 to a single runoff. A single runoff, however, did not always allow for an adequate winnowing of candidates. In 1850, in Vermont’s First Congressional District, A. L. Miner who had come in second in the original election with 31%, won the runoff with just 39% of the vote. The original election had had a field of four candidates. In the runoff, only the original bottom vote-getter, Democrat Merritt Clark (10%), withdrew, leaving a fairly even three-way split in the final election. The majority requirement and runoff elections for congressional races were dropped altogether in 1916. Since the Republican candidate in this era generally got 70 - 80% of the vote, the abandonment of a basic democratic principle hardly seemed significant for actual elections.

The direct election of U.S. Senators did not commence until 1914 with the Seventeenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. This was the height of the Vermont Republican era, so issues of a majority requirement were not considered. In modern times, however, (1974, 1976 and 1980) U. S. Senate elections in Vermont have been won with a plurality less than a majority.