March 2001 Press
Marjority Rule in Vermont's Elections, March, 2001
Immediate Release Contact: Martha Trombley
Marjority Role in Vermont's Elections
Deborah Markowitz, Secretary of State
Ask any fourth grader and you will quickly learn that democracy means majority rule. In fact, most grown ups are surprised to find out that many of our officials - from President to Secretary of State -- are elected with the support of less that 50% of those who voted.
We expect that a person wins elective office when more than half of the voters share his or her values or goals. In fact, in the current "plurality" system whomever gets the most votes wins --
even if a majority of the voters consider that candidate to be unacceptable. The fact that we use plurality voting - rather than majority rule comes as a surprise because it is counter-intuitive.
In Minnesota we saw Jesse "the body" Ventura elected Governor of Minnesota with just 37% of the vote. President Bill Clinton won his first election for president with only 43% of the vote. Whether Ventura or Clinton was actually the preferred choice of a majority of voters is something our current voting system can't determine. Indeed, many believe that Clinton won his first term in office precisely because Reform Party candidate, Ross Perot, split the conservative vote.
Our current "plurality" system also poses an unnecessary dilemma for many voters where there are more than two parties in the running. By voting for a favorite candidate a voter might end up actually helping to elect the candidate they like the least. This conundrum keeps some voters home. It especially effects our youngest citizens, who are most likely to vote for a third party candidate.
With just over one in four young people (18 to 24 years old) choosing to vote, and only 64% of Vermont's adults voting in our presidential election it is important for us to take a hard look at whether it is time to try something new.
This year the legislature will be considering two bills, S94 and H175, both of which propose to change our voting system to ensure majority rule. Republican, Democrat, Progressive and Independent legislators have joined together to offer legislation that would permit our statewide and federal elections to be run using the "instant runoff" method.
S94 and H175 would permit voters to not only pick a first choice in any election, but they would also be given the option of indicating who their second or third choice pick would be in case no candidate wins over 50% of the vote. In the event that there is no majority winner, and runoff count can be conducted. This will not require a costly new election. Rather, the law will permit the runoff count to eliminate the lowest vote-getters and then count the voters top preferences to find the candidate who has received the majority of votes. Voters whose top candidate was eliminated will have their next choice count.
In Vermont, more than other states, there is another reason we should consider adopting majority rule. According to our constitution, if no candidate for Governor, Lieutenant Governor or Treasurer receives over 50% of the vote, the legislature elects this position. You might be surprised to know that in 35 percent of all election years in Vermont, one or more federal or statewide races had a result with no majority. And in some cases, when an election went to the legislature, the legislature actually picked the person who did not receive the most votes! Changing our system to majority rule would have the added advantage of keeping our elections in the hands of the voters.
It is clear that we must take steps to strengthen our democracy. While we are proud in Vermont of our high voter turnout, our turnout is still far below the norm of other democracies around the world. We can do many things to make it easier to vote, but what will really make the difference is to give people reasons to vote - majority rule will get us there.