Election by Joint Assembly

The presence of multiple or "third-party" candidates can prevent a candidate from achieving a majority vote. When no one receives the majority vote for certain offices, such as governor, the election goes to the General Assembly (or before 1836, to a joint assembly of the legislature and executive council). Historically, but not always, the General Assembly has selected the candidate who received the plurality of votes.

Some examples of when the non-plurality winner was elected are included below.  For more specific details, see the chart of Officers Elected by Joint Assembly.

The first time an election failed to produce a majority winner in the gubernatorial race was in 1789.  The joint assembly chose the second-place finisher, Moses Robinson. Thus the incumbent, Thomas Chittenden, was unseated, although he won the popular vote by 44% to 26%. Chittenden's failure to attain a majority reflected an emerging opposition to the early Revolutionary leaders as well as concerns over his involvement in a questionable land grant.

Under Section X Chapter II of the 1786 Constitution, in the event no candidate for governor, lieutenant governor, or state treasurer received a majority, a joint assembly of the General Assembly and the Executive Council would make the choice. There was no restriction that only the top three vote-getters be considered by the joint assembly. See also Section XVII Chapter II of the 1777 Constitution.

In 1835 the joint assembly was split among partisan factions (Anti-Masons, Democrats, and an emerging Whig Party).  After 63 ballots, the assembly declared itself unable to elect a governor. The lieutenant governor, Silas Jennison, served as acting governor for the term.

The failure to choose a governor contributed to the creation of a state senate and to the abolition of the executive council under constitutional amendments adopted in 1836. Those amendments set up the process we currently follow. That the adopted amendments did not resolve all difficulties became evident the next year.

In 1837 the General Assembly elected the third-place finisher in the treasurer's race, even though he captured just over 3% of the popular vote; he refused to serve. The Constitution required that the General Assembly elect a candidate from among the top three finishers and made no allowance for a second election if the selected candidate would not serve. Even though the effort to call a joint assembly in order to hold a second election was not abandoned until November 1, the governor appointed a treasurer to fill the vacancy on October 26, 1837.

In 1853 factions within the legislature, notably Democrats and Free Soil Democrats, combined to elect the Democratic slate, although the Whig candidates had received the plurality. The following year the Republican Party was formed; Democrats would not return to the governor's office until 1963.

The most recent time the non-plurality winner was selected was in the 1976 lieutenant governor's race.  The incumbent lieutenant governor, Brian D. Burns, had not run for re-election (he had unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor).  In the general election, John Alden (Democrat) 48.4% share of the vote was 2,854 votes short of a majority; T. Garry Buckley (Republican) received 47.6% of the vote, and John Franco (Liberty Union) 4%. 

With no third-party presence in the General Assembly, Alden's plurality was the result of receiving votes as an "Independent Vermonter" as well as a Democrat.  Without the Independent Vermonter votes, Alden would have finished behind Buckley.  Lieutenant Governor Burns continued to preside over the senate until his successor was chosen and took the oath of office.

The senate debated whether the lieutenant governor, as President of the Senate, had "a casting vote to break a tie involving the election of the new Lieutenant Governor."  On January 6, 1977, the committee chair (Burns) overruled an opinion of the temporary senate rules committee that the presiding officer of the joint assembly (the lieutenant governor) had no such casting vote. President pro tempore Robert Bloomer appealed the chair's ruling. The senate voted to uphold the chair's ruling (see Journal of the Senate of the State of Vermont, 1977, p. 13).

On January 12, Senator Bloomer again appealed the ruling. This time his appeal was sustained, leaving the presiding officer without a casting vote in the event the joint assembly tied in its election of the lieutenant governor (see Journal of the Senate of the State of Vermont, 1977, p. 44).

The General Assembly then met in joint assembly with 178 of a possible 180 members present and voting.  Ninety votes (a majority) were necessary for election. Buckley received 90 votes on the first ballot; Alden received 87 votes and John Franco received one vote.  The legislators may have been influenced by rumors that Alden was confronting legal problems; these problems became public only after the General Assembly elected Buckley. There have been proposals of amendment to the Constitution to change the majority requirement.

Proponents of instant run-off voting have offered bills providing mechanisms for achieving a majority by having voters cast ballots indicating first, second and third choices for an office. Three such bills were offered in the 2001-2002 legislative session: H. 175, S. 50, and S. 94.

This page was last updated: 2016-09-16