by Nat Frothingham
If I were writing a letter to members of the Vermont House and Senate who will gather in Joint Assembly in the day or two after the Legislature convenes in January, my message would be painfully clear:
Please read the Vermont Constitution.
If you were the candidate for governor who got the most votes on Election Day last Nov. 4 in all likelihood you would be saying – “I got the most votes. That means I win.”
But that is not what the Vermont Constitution says or implies.
In the fall of 2003 Montpelier lawyer and historian Paul Gillies along with former state Archivist D. Gregory Sanford published an article in the Vermont Law Review. That article ponders the meaning of Section 47 of the Vermont Constitution – the section of the constitution that outlines what happens if no candidate for governor or lieutenant governor or state treasurer wins a (50 percent-plus-one) majority vote.
Gillies and Sanford begin their article with these words:
“Majority rule is the essential mode of democratic rule when a body of people is asked to decide between two choices. ‘Yes’ or ‘no’; this candidate or that are choices that have only one outcome — one candidate has the majority of votes and prevails. When three or more candidates are on the ballot for an office, it becomes harder for any one candidate to attain a majority of votes. As such three- or four-way elections go, obtaining more votes than anyone else — a plurality — has become the standard in most states, cities and towns. Vermont is different. In Vermont majority rule remains the standard for the election of the three highest state officials and some local offices. Section 47 of the Vermont Constitution requires a candidate running for governor, lieutenant governor, or state Treasurer to obtain a majority vote in order to be elected. Failing that, ‘the Senate and House of Representatives shall by joint ballot, elect to fill the office, not filled as aforesaid, one of the three candidates for such office (if there be so many) for whom greatest number of votes shall have been returned’.”
That is the situation we find ourselves in today. On Nov. 4, no candidate for governor achieved a majority vote and it is now the task of a Joint Assembly of the new Legislature to elect a governor. But the constitution says nothing about any obligation to vote for the candidate who got the most votes.
The Bridge has been publishing for 21 years now. At no time during this period has the paper endorsed a candidate for public office.
Instead, we have discussed a range of public issues. We have tried — strenuously — to present within our pages the fullest possible range of political thinking and perspectives — right, left and center.
In what I am writing here, I am taking leave of the paper’s tradition of not endorsing candidates for public office.
As I look back on the election and the race for governor, essentially a race between Peter Shumlin and Scott Milne — this is what I see.
Peter Shumlin entered the race with a number of advantages.
He was the incumbent. He had the greater name recognition. The Democratic party had impressive majorities in both the House and Senate. Shumlin was a seasoned politician who had served in the House, the Senate and had twice been elected governor. He had more campaign money, as governor and as newsmaker he had greater media attention. And because of his campaign money advantage he had greater paid media exposure.
In this uneven contest, Scott Milne was not an incumbent. His Republican party was in the minority in both houses. Milne had run for the House and lost but he had never served in political office. He had much less name recognition than his opponent, much less campaign money, much less media attention and less paid media exposure. Yet when the votes were counted on Nov. 4 and 5, no candidate achieved a majority and Shumlin’s margin of victory was 2,434 votes.
I will not attempt a comprehensive review of Shumlin’s second-term performance as governor.
I will note in passing that according to press accounts Shumlin was out of state for 141 days since his second term began in January 2013.
What I will do, also, is discuss, even if briefly, the troubled, expensive, and largely dysfunctional roll-out of the state’s Vermont Health Connect program, a roll-out with costs in the tens of millions of dollars.
That this country cannot put together a universal health care system — and the Affordable Care Act doesn’t qualify as such to me — is a national disgrace.
But the messy and expensive Vermont Health Connect roll-out hurt the governor’s single-payer health care initiative. If the state was unable to handle the Health Connect roll-out could it handle a single-payer system?
Then there were repeated promises by Shumlin to put forward the details of a funding proposal for the new single-payer health care initiative. That proposal was never put forward to the Legislature. In effect, the Vermont Legislature was disrespected.
That funding proposal was never put forward before the November election. So it couldn’t be examined, couldn’t be discussed. And the Vermont voters were disrespected.
Now, a funding proposal is to go before the Legislature at the end of this December, days before the new Legislature convenes. Again the Legislature is disrespected.
Shumlin has often articulated the need to get health care spending under control. But where is the funding plan? Where is the transparency?
And has mortal damage been visited on the idea of a single-payer initiative because Vermont Health Connect was bungled and because a funding plan was never taken to the Legislature or to the voters?
This, in part, is the damaged legacy of the past two Shumlin years.
And this is why the Joint Assembly should elect Scott Milne.