Commentary: Three Useful Election Law Improvements

With the 2022 election out of the way, it’s a good time to take a serious look at proposals for improving election laws.  Here are three of my longtime favorites.

Single Member Districts: The curse of legislative elections is that, in multimember districts a candidate is only rarely willing to do battle with any other candidate. Why? Because there’s always the prospect of winning some second or third votes from the partisans of that other candidate. This makes for appallingly issue free elections.

Elections should be occasions where incumbents defend their records, and challengers offer their alternative. When challengers fail to hold incumbents accountable, democracy isn’t working.

Last May the legislature took an commendable step in the right direction. It divided the atrocious six-member Chittenden County Senate district into two three-member districts and one single-member district. The two two-member Northeast Kingdom Senate seats were changed to three single-member seats (losing one seat in the process). Washington, Rutland and Windsor countries continue to have three members. More progress toward single member House and Senate Districts could be made in any session, but probably that will have to wait until the required redistricting in 2032.

One Big Choice: In 26 states voters choose among Governor-Lt. Governor teams. In 17, including Vermont, Governor and Lt. Governor are elected separately. When that happens, the Governor can be saddled with a Lt. Governor who is often eager to replace the Governor at the next election, and spends two years building his or her capacity to do that.

That was the case when in 2018 Progressive David Zuckerman was elected Lt. Governor and ran against his Governor Phil Scott in 2020. He was unsuccessful, but after a two year layoff he ran again and won an open Lt. Governor seat, He will surely run for Governor again when Gov. Scott seeks reelection or retires from office in 2024.

Far better that Vermonters should choose the Governor-Lt. Governor team to lead the state for the following two years. What about the remaining four statewide elected officials? Take them off the ballot.

In eight states treasurers are appointed by the governor and in four they are elected by the legislature. In four states the governor appoints the secretary of state, and in three that officer is elected by the legislature. In 26 states the auditor is appointed by the governor, and in two that officer is elected by the legislature. Whichever method Vermont chose, these three no longer elected officers would become non-partisan professional civil servants, as was the case in Vermont until 1964.

That leaves the attorney general, who should be appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. The AG would thus be accountable to the Governor, instead of independently running his or her public interest law firm at taxpayer expense. That is the practice in New Hampshire, Alaska, Hawaii, New Jersey and Wyoming.

This change offers One Big Choice to the voters. The Plan is simple, understandable, tested and far more meaningful than today’s welter of little-known statewide candidates vying for attention from an electorate that really has little idea of who those candidates are and what qualifications they have for the offices they seek. Their campaigns clutter up the ballot and suck up political contributions and campaign workers that would far better be devoted to electing the all-important Governor and Lt. Governor leadership team.

Restore Party Integrity:  In 1974 the legislature threw party primary elections open to anyone who wanted to vote in them, without declaring membership in that party. Fifty years later Progressives, who rarely have a contested primary, flock into the Democratic primary to drive it ever further to the Left, rebuffing two well-qualified centrist candidates backed by Democratic grandees Leahy, Dean and Kunin. On the Republican side, Tea Party activists and followers of former President Trump have entered the Republican Party to advance their specific causes and candidates with little interest in maintaining a viable and competitive party.

Any voter who wants to join a political party must be free to choose to so. But those who refuse to join a party have no business choosing that party’s platform and candidates, any more than I have voting for the officers of the Knights of Columbus or the Masonic Lodge.

As noted, single member districts are most likely off the table until after the 2030 Census. Changing the attorney general’s status could be done any time. One Big Choice would require a constitutional amendment, which could be introduced next year. The party integrity issue unfortunately has a steadily diminishing constituency. What our current democratic institutions will eventually evolve into – well, we’ll have to wait and see.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He has served in both the Vermont House and Senate.


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