Commentary

John McClaughry: Election law reforms worth considering

Editor’s note: This commentary is by John McClaughry, the vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute and a former member of the House and Senate.

This turbulent election season is now over, at least for Vermont. It’s a good time to peruse a menu of election law reforms that the next Legislature should seriously consider.

We should universally require that registering to vote be a solemn civic act. Every new voter should appear before a clerk or justice and take the Freeman’s Oath, promising to act as a citizen “to conduce to the best good of the [State of Vermont], as established by the Constitution, without fear or favor of any person.” Repeal the repugnant motor voter law, where a driver casually checks a box on a form to become a voter.

Only registered voters should be eligible to run for election to an office. No showboating 15-year-olds, green card foreigners, or persons illegally in our country.

Every registered voter should be free to join any political party, hold party offices, and vote to nominate its candidates. Those who don’t care to belong to a party — independents — can work for candidates and vote in general elections, but they have no business barging into a party’s primary to influence its policies and nominees when they don’t choose to actually belong.

Candidates should not be allowed to file for more than one office. No more perennial publicity seekers running for multiple incompatible offices in the same election.

Redistrict the state next year with single member House districts, and single member Senate districts comprised of five contiguous House districts. That way a challenger can target one incumbent, and make him or her defend his or her record over the previous two years.

Candidates in multimember districts are reluctant to take on incumbents, because some of the incumbent’s supporters might vote for both the incumbent and the challenger. There’s little incentive for a candidate to alienate some potential voters by making an incumbent defend his or her record, which is the whole point of democratic elections.

When all of the choices for an office appear to a voter to be unacceptable, allow the voter to mark the ballot for “None Of The Above” (“the turkey ballot”). If NOTA wins the most votes, a special election is called, and none of the rejected turkeys can appear again on the ballot (although they can receive write-in votes.)

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Amend the Constitution (starting in 2023) to ask voters to make just One Big Choice: Which team do I want to lead the state for the next two years? As practiced in 22 other states, the voters would put one X on their ballots to select among the Democratic, Republican, Progressive and perhaps one or more independent candidate teams.

The lieutenant governor elected with the governor would be the governor’s fellow partisan and trusted lieutenant. That would ensure continuity of policies if the governor died or resigned.

As in Maine, New Hampshire, and Tennessee the Legislature would elect the secretary of state and treasurer, and as in Colorado and Tennessee, the auditor. They would essentially become civil servants, whose performance, like that of judges, would be reviewed by the Legislature every four or six years. That would minimize political jockeying by ambitious and often unqualified lower office holders trying to use their office to propel themselves into a higher one.

Let the governor appoint the attorney general to serve at his pleasure, subject to confirmation by the Senate or Executive Council. This is the practice in New Hampshire, New Jersey, Wyoming, Alaska and Hawaii. The attorney general would be accountable to the governor, instead of running his own public interest law firm at taxpayers’ expense in the hope of climbing the political ladder.

Compress the period for early voting. As Ethan Allen Institute President Rob Roper has recently pointed out, “early voting leads to a less informed electorate, necessitates more money in politics, is a boon to telemarketers, direct mail companies, and social media advertisers, reduces accountability by protecting incumbents, and draws out interminably the period in which politicians permeate every facet of our existence.”

Finally, discontinue this year’s practice of mailing unrequested absentee ballots out to 400,000 names on a list indifferently compiled by the secretary of state. If voters want to vote absentee, they can request a ballot until a week before the election, to be returned on or before Election Day. That little effort is not too much to ask of a citizen, and those who aren’t willing to make it should not be disturbed in their civic apathy.

Will these ideas get serious consideration? Almost certainly not, because incumbents find them thoroughly distasteful and indeed threatening.


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