Douglas vetoes campaign finance, instant-runoff voting bills

Dave Gram // Published April 7, 2008 in The Boston Globe
MONTPELIER, Vt. --Gov. Jim Douglas on Friday vetoed the Legislature's latest effort to limit the influence of big money in politics, as well as an instant-runoff voting bill.

Douglas said his veto of the campaign finance bill was mainly due to his opposition to a provision limiting the amounts political parties can donate to campaigns. The legislation set a limit of $30,000 per election cycle on party contributions to gubernatorial candidates, lower limits for lesser offices.

"The proposed party contribution limits extend unfair political protection to incumbents by establishing an obstacle for challengers," Douglas wrote in his veto message to lawmakers. "These limits would particularly disadvantage potential candidates of modest means who are unable to fund their own campaigns."

Douglas contended the instant-runoff voting measure would violate the principle of one person, one vote enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, by allowing voters who's first choice for an office didn't win to have their second choices counted.

That was disputed by the executive director of a national election reform group. Rob Richie of Maryland-based FairVote said the question of one person, one vote had been specifically tested in court and that a Michigan instant-runoff voting law was found to have passed the test.

House Speaker Gaye Symington on Friday called Douglas' two vetoes "outrageous," and vowed a veto override attempt in the House on the campaign finance bill. Douglas vetoed a more ambitious campaign finance bill last year, and a veto override failed in the House by one vote.

The two campaign finance reform bills follow a 2006 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that a more restrictive law passed in 1997 was so onerous as to be unconstitutional. Backers of this year's bill said they tailored it to answer the court's -- and Douglas' -- concerns.

Symington said other states have tougher campaign finance limits than the ones proposed in Vermont this year. "This was a bill that would not have placed Vermont in the forefront of campaign finance legislation around the country," she said. "It would simply put in place reasonable limits on the influence of money in our elections. Governor Douglas has stepped firmly in the way of those kinds of reasonable limits."

She said she was also disappointed in Douglas' veto of the instant-runoff voting bill. "Both bills were about strengthening democracy."

Lawmakers limited the instant-runoff voting bill to races for the U.S. House and Senate after the attorney general's office issued an opinion that applying it to races for governor and other state offices would violate the state Constitution.

Douglas said in his veto message that supporters of instant-runoff voting should try to get it enacted as an amendment to the Vermont Constitution.

Instant-runoff voting, already in use in Burlington's city elections and in several other jurisdictions around the country, is designed for elections in which three or more candidates are running and in which none receives more than 50 percent of the vote.

Voters are invited to rank candidates in order of preference on the ballot. In the event no candidate wins a majority, a runoff is declared between the two top vote-getters. If a voter's top choice is not still in contention, the voter's ballot is assigned to his or her second choice and the ballots are counted again.

The Vermont Public Interest Research Group, FairVote and Common Cause-Vermont also criticized the veto.

Instant-runoff voting is "a pretty simple, straightforward way of enhancing voter choice," said Curt Fisher, board chairman with Common Cause-Vermont. "It's really disappointing that enhancing voter choice is not important to the governor."