A refresher course on the constitution

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(Host) Commentator John McClaughry offers a civics lesson for the current debate on plurality in Vermont elections.

Since 1777, Vermont’s constitution has provided that if no candidate for governor, lieutenant governor or treasurer wins “the major part of the votes” cast in the General Election, the newly elected Senators and Representatives “shall by joint ballot, elect to fill the office” from among the top three vote-getters in the General Election. This year, there is a real possibility that no candidate for governor or lieutenant governor will get “the major part of the votes” cast by the electorate on November 5. So one leading Democratic Senator has proposed that, if “no majority” comes to pass, the constitution simply be ignored, and that every legislator be required to vote on the record.

One can make a rather strong case that a General Assembly election vote ought to be “on the record.” But the Vermont Constitution does not. It says, in black and white, “by joint ballot.” Every man and woman who served in the Legislature over the past 225 years, every town clerk and moderator, every board of civil authority, and every Vermonter who has ever voted at a town meeting knows perfectly well that a “ballot” is a piece of paper on which the voter indicates his or her private choice, and deposits in the ballot box.

The plain language of the constitution and the unbroken and unchallenged practice of years of Vermont history completely settle any question on this point. Just the same, a lot of Vermonters could profit by a quick refresher course in Vermont Civics 101. And so here it is, in a nutshell:

The constitution belongs to the people, not to their servants in the courts and Legislature. The people adopt a constitution to spell out their rights, their duties, and the form of democratic self-government. When times, circumstances, and preferences change, constitutional amendments are proposed, debated, approved by legislative majorities, and ratified by popular vote. Until the people amend their constitution, legislators and judges are not allowed to do so on their own.

Those politicians, including those on the Supreme Court, who ignore what the constitution requires and make up new rules that the people have never assented to, should be retired from office at the first opportunity. Let’s do it right. After all, this is Vermont, not some backward third world country where a constitution is only a joke.

This is John McClaughry – thanks for listening.

John McClaughery is president of the Ethan Allen Institute, a Vermont policy research and education organization.

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