My Turn: Instant runoff would elect by majority

Terry Bouricius // Published May 31, 2008 in The Burlington Free Press
A recent Associated Press news analysis published in your paper discussed the dilemma legislators might face if no candidate receives a majority of the votes in a three-way race next November, since the Vermont Constitution does not consider a mere plurality to be sufficient ("What if governor's race goes to Legislature," May 26).

Several times in the story, the candidate who ends up with the most votes, but less than half, is referred to as the choice who is "the will of the voters." Remember that the majority of voters (more than half) preferred other candidates and voted against this "top vote-getter."

In a simple two-way race, if candidate A gets 60 percent and candidate B gets 40 percent it is fair to say A represents the will of the voters. But what if a third candidate enters that same race and splits A's support so that the results are A with 35 percent, B still gets 40 percent and C receives 25 percent? Did the entry of candidate C transform the "will of the voters" so that they no longer prefer A over B? No. The current election rules simply don't allow the "will of the voters" to be determined in such a three-way race.

The framers of the Vermont Constitution were keenly aware of this "spoiler" dynamic and expressly stated that if no candidate won a majority, there was no winner at all, and an alternate means had to be used to find the will of the voters. Since instant runoff voting (using ranked-choice ballots) had not yet been invented, the only solution that they could think of, that did not delay the selection by repeated voting, was to have the Legislature stand in for the voters, and vote over and over until a majority winner emerged.

In fact, for most of Vermont's history there was a majority requirement for the election of nearly all offices. It is only in recent times that Vermont law has allowed a candidate that most voters voted against to be declared the "winner" in order to avoid repeated elections.

Gov. Jim Douglas does not believe in majority rule (as revealed by his recent veto of the instant runoff voting bill), but I would hope the Legislature would respect the voters enough to seek to determine which candidate was preferred by the majority of voters rather than by a mere minority.

Terry Bouricius lives in Burlington.