Steve May: Electoral reform now

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Steve May, of Richmond, who is a Progressive/Democratic candidate for the Chittenden-1/Richmond seat in the Vermont House. He is a clinical social worker with an office in Burlington and is the director of VERBIX, the VERmont Basic Income Exchange, a pro‐basic income advocacy organization.

Some 70 years ago, after the Allied forces won in the Atlantic and Pacific, the State Department began the process of putting post-war Italy, Germany and Japan back together. In all three cases, under military occupation the State Department and the Allies imposed an electoral system on Italy, Germany and Japan.

All three countries received constitutions that at their core had systems which elected members of their national and regional parliaments through a proportional system. In politics, proportionality is the idea that if a political party in total gains a certain percentage of the upper or lower house of its parliament, an equivalent percentage of the seats should be allotted to that party. The idea of proportionality is that the number of total votes cast for each political party should have some role in determining the makeup the actual composition of the incoming legislature, congress, parliament, etc.

The State Department was most deliberate in making this choice. Having just come out of two enormously expensive and tragic wars within a generation’s time, it was thought to be in the best interest of all parties involved to create political systems which accurately reflect the intent of voters. Drawing multiple views into public life was a way to expose extremism while supporting strong majorities and resilient governments. It should also be pointed out that proportionality as a principle continues to be central in the State Department’s approach to nation-building as diplomats used proportionality to create the National Parliament in Iraq. Their choice to do so repeatedly, as diplomats charged with promoting our peace and prosperity around the world speaks for itself.

Vermont is a multiparty democracy with vibrant political exchanges. While Vermont is nowhere as volatile a political environment as what the world confronted coming out of World War II, it is dynamic and robust by any objective standard. Even with Vermont’s higher than average levels of political participation huge swaths of the electorate do not participate in electoral politics. Through quirks of geography and other factors, voters are dispossessed. Barriers to participation are ongoing. Demographics and other factors are stacked against them. For whatever reason, these voters have concluded that dropping out of political life is the only means by which to register their belief that they don’t count. Short of an act of G-d, they will likely never have the heavens align in a way that electing a candidate of their choice will be possible. Instead, we ask these citizens to participate in a shill game of tactical voting, where not losing means supporting some candidate who is least objectionable.

Montpelier must look more like the way we the public have voted or our system is going to eventually be viewed as less than credible. Vermont would be well served to lead a conversation about electoral reform and representation.


We as a society ought to be able to provide our neighbors with something more than the least bad option available. Without question, our current system has failed these citizens. And little can likely be done to change those factors, short of addressing systemic problems with our electoral system.

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We as Vermonters and Americans use the first-past-the- post system (FPTP) to elect politicians. That means we expect after one round of balloting the person who garners the largest sum of votes wins. This system has been retired increasing around the world. In elections where we have more than two candidates it is most likely that no one candidate after one round of voting will have a mandate to govern or serve. Meaning that the person with the greatest number of votes still has won less than 50 percent of the vote. But instead of requiring a demonstrated majority we accept that candidates in multiparty races with as little as 30 percent of the vote have won.

For us, as Americans, FPTP is a hand-me-down from the Brits and dates to the beginning of our republic. The British handed the first-past-the-post to all their colonies as the preferred way to elect a legislative body. They gave it to the Aussies and the Kiwis, the Canadians and us. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s new prime minister, pledged that this past election would be the last under its first-past-the-post system, and a committee is considering changing how members are elected to the Commons with Elections Canada expecting to put the adopted recommendations in place for parliamentary elections in 2019. Australia and New Zealand have cast off their outdated FPTP. In fact it is only the United States and Britain that continue to use FPTP to elect members to legislative bodies.

Literally, no one else in the world selects candidates and operates an election in this way. Some elements of proportionality are integrated into the electoral system of every other modern democracy, because it is much fairer to the public. A review of comparative electoral systems will show that only the United States and Britain are likely to be using FPTP beyond 2020 as their primary method for selecting candidates.

One of the cornerstone precepts of American participatory democracy is “majority rule and minority rights.” Proportional systems are by design much better equipped to accommodate minority political perspectives. Allowing new movements representation in legislative bodies requires that these nascent political movements act as responsible political actors in the governing environment, whether in opposition or as part of a governing majority. Under our current system, balance is virtually nonexistent. Opposing views are largely blotted out as a matter of course.

In short, we here in Vermont need to reconfigure the way we hold elections and count ballots. Our current system rewards the projection of power, nothing more and nothing less. The maintenance, preservation and projection of political power is simply not enough. It certainly is not the same as governing. Fuller representation is absolutely critical to the well-being of our political system going forward. Montpelier must look more like the way we the public have voted or our system is going to eventually be viewed as less than credible. Vermont would be well served to lead a conversation about electoral reform and representation.


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