Commentary: Four Proposals to Improve Elections (November, 2014)

by John McClaughry

John McClaughryNow that the 2014 state elections are over, it’s worth looking at how the process might be improved in the future. Here are four proposals.

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 is always the prospect of winning some second votes from the partisans of that other candidate. This makes for appallingly issue-free elections.

Elections should be occasions where incumbents defend their record, and challengers offer their alternative. When challengers fail to hold incumbents accountable, an important element of democracy is lost. Where single member districts might be awkward, as in Burlington, candidates should file and run for “Position 1″, “Position 2″ etc. instead of at large.

At present, there are three single member Senate districts (Lamoille, Orange, Grand Isle). There ought to be thirty, each composed of five House districts.

One Big Choice:  Vermont ballots are invariably cluttered up with scores of candidates  for six statewide offices. Voters ought to cast one vote for the leadership team of their choice: Governor and Lt. Governor. This is the current practice in 25 states. That would ensure continuity of policies if the Governor died or resigned.

The candidates would make up their own teams and contest party primaries with other teams, as in Maryland and Montana. Alternatively, the candidate who wins the primary for governor could ask his or her party convention to name the most suitable running mate to strengthen the ticket, as the national party conventions do in presidential elections

Under the One Big Choice plan, voters would concentrate on the character, experience, and platforms of the candidates for Governor, just as the voters in 2012 concentrated on Obama-Biden vs. Romney-Ryan. The parties would concentrate their campaign efforts, talents, volunteers and fund raising on persuading the voters to make the One Big Choice in their party’s favor. Treasurer and Secretary of State would be chosen on a nonpartisan basis by the legislature (as in New Hampshire and Maine). The Auditor of Accounts would be similarly chosen (as in 24 states.)

The Attorney General would be the governor’s appointee, confirmed by the Senate (as in New Hampshire. New Jersey, Wyoming, Alaska and Hawaii.).  He or she would be accountable to the governor, instead of running his own independent public interest law firm at taxpayers’ expense.

The four lower officers would be off the ballot and out of partisan politics. The scramble to raise money to fund their campaigns would end. Scarce campaign talent would migrate to the governor’s campaign and the Congressional and legislative campaigns. Ending the annoying clutter of competing advertisements, mailings, phone calls and yard signs from candidates about whom the public has little knowledge or interest would provide welcome relief to voters.

The One Big Choice Plan is simple, understandable, tested, and far more meaningful than today’s welter of statewide candidates vying for attention from an electorate that really has little idea of who those candidates are or what those offices do. The downside: aspiring politicians hate it.

Restore Party Integrity:  In 1974 Vermont threw elections open to anyone who wanted to vote anonymously in any party’s primary. This became an open invitation – enthusiastically accepted – for the Progressives, who rarely have a primary, to flock into the Democratic primary to back leftist Democrats. Similarly, but on a smaller scale, Libertarians, Tea Party people, and independents can flock into a Republican primary to nominate their favorites, with little regard for the need of the political party to be capable of governing when its candidates are put into power.

Turkey Ballot: Finally, when the voters view all of the candidates for an office as turkeys (or worse), let them vote for “none of the above”.  If “none of the above” wins a plurality in a race, the office is declared vacant, there’s a special election, and the failed candidates can no longer qualify for the ballot (but could run as write-ins.)

Even without this feature, just being outpolled by “none of the above” should produce a well-deserved embarrassment to the candidate who gets the next highest vote and assumes the office. The down side: the elected legislature won’t consider it because few of its members dare to take the risk of being outpolled by “none of the above.”

- John McClaughry, a former House and Senate member, is vice president of the
Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org)

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