By Matthew Andrews
This commentary originally appears in VTDigger.
Anyone with an elementary understanding of democracy will tell you that it is based on majority rule. But not in the state of Vermont. With 46.36% of votes, the media is presuming Peter Shumlin’s re-election. This is because Vermont’s antiquated constitution defers the election of our governor to the legislature when no candidate wins a majority, trampling another basic tenant of democracy: rule by the people. Rounding out the violations of democratic principles is secrecy. The selection of Vermont’s next governor will hinge on secret ballots cast by lawmakers on Jan. 8th. The corporate media is uniformly celebrating the freedom of lawmakers to “vote their conscience.” It is shameful that these journalists seem incapable of considering what secret votes would mean for their profession, let alone government accountability, if it were applied to every legislative decision.
Despite some of the most liberal ballot access laws in the country, Vermont is still a one party state. Some Democrats ran on a fusion ballot line with the Republican Party’s endorsement. Others were dual Progressive Party candidates. Every statewide elected official, regardless of party affiliation, has made peace with Vermont’s ruling elite. Even our Republican Lieutenant Governor, Phil Scott, handily won re-election with significant support from the Democratic Party establishment, which was incensed by candidate Dean Corren’s strong affinity with the Progressive Party.
The Gubernatorial race however, came dangerously close to upsetting the apple cart. Libertarian candidate Dan Feliciano articulated many traditional Republican ideas about free markets and small government better than the Republican nominee, Scott Milne. Feliciano was even courted early on by some to compete for the Republican nomination. On election day, Feliciano won 8,428 votes, representing 4.36% of ballots cast. It is safe to assume that many of these voters would have selected Milne as a second choice, resoundingly beating Shumlin. Even if we lump the 3,157 votes for liberal fourth place candidate, Emily Peyton, in with Shumlin, it would not have been enough to swing the election back his way. The last three candidates on the ballot, each earning less than 1% of the vote, cannot be easily interpreted as having a secondary preference between Shumlin and Milne. The bottom line is these numbers can only be interpreted as a victory for the Republican-Libertarian perspective over Peter Shumlin.
“What is clear is that the majority of Vermonters do not agree with the path that we are on,” Milne said. Rather than making an argument based on majority rule, Milne has suggested that he may have won more districts than Shumlin. This may be a wise approach for convincing legislators to swing his way. But just as Al Gore threw in the towel early after the 2000 elections, don’t expect Scott Milne to mount a robust resistance to Vermont Democrats. Protecting the legitimacy of the system comes first for corporate-funded candidates.
Some may remember that Shumlin did not win a majority in his 2011 election either. If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then tradition is the last refuge for backward practices. Unsurprisingly, that is exactly the argument being made by Democrats and echoed by media outlets.
Democracy in Vermont is far behind international standards. Most democratic countries hold a run-off election between the two highest vote-winners when no candidate wins a majority. Another efficient way to empower voter choice would be to have instant run-off ballots. In each race voters rank their choices, first, second, and third. This would eliminate the dangers of candidates splitting votes and free voters to express their true preferences. Experts bemoan that our current plurality system is the least democratic of any alternative, except for random selection!
The political message of Vermont’s 2014 election is more complex than most commentators realize. The national media’s narrative of a Republican sweep does not hold water in Vermont. Progressives achieved a net gain of two seats in the legislature, from eight to ten. Even the explicitly socialist Liberty Union Party had several statewide and local candidates with percentages reaching double digits. Feliciano however, failed to meet the threshold of 5% to gain major party status for Libertarians.
Elections are decided by the people who show up to vote. Lamentably, voter turnout in Vermont on November 4th was the lowest since 1978. The most popular number circulating for voter turnout is 43.7% of registered voters. That percentage would be closer to 36% if we compared ballots cast against every adult citizen living in Vermont. In most democratic nations this would be called a boycott. In the United States our corporate media tells us to shrug it off as apathy.
Activists that typically constitute the grassroots engine behind Democratic Party candidates did not mobilize in this election for Shumlin. His attacks on public sector unions, ardent support for environmentally damaging industrial energy projects, and refusal to propose a method for funding single payer health care has clearly eroded his popularity. Uninspired by their alternatives, voters stayed home in record numbers.
Vermont is not immune to the growing economic divide that is gripping our nation. The real story behind this election is not that voters are tilting a little more conservative or liberal. Rather, the bottom is falling out of the political center. As the rich get richer, government becomes less responsive to the needs of ordinary people. The myth of a common sense pragmatic center is dissolving all around us.
Outside the stifling chambers of the statehouse, Vermont is becoming a tinder box. The unresolved grievances that gave rise to the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street remain. A struggle between the competing narratives of these two movements is ongoing in every community and workplace. Don’t be surprised how quickly Vermonters shed their apathy when unforeseeable events strike, just as they did in Madison, New York City, Charlotte, and Ferguson.
Matthew Andrews was the Liberty Union Party candidate for Congress. He has previously worked for voter choice reform in Massachusetts. Currently he lives in Plainfield and works for a masonry contractor.