Political Pluralism in Vermont

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(HOST) Commentator Ellen David Friedman says that participating in a local vote recount taught her something important about political pluralism.

(FRIEDMAN) One of the problems of our two party winner-take-all electoral system is that it can leave you thinking that a block of voters who’ve cast a ballot for the same candidate all want the same thing. But, of course, the reality is far more nuanced. I was given a good dose of reality on this question recently when I participated in a thirteen-hour ballot recount for a challenged election in the Northeast Kingdom.

Let me say that I went into this recount in a partisan frame of mind, as one volunteer among thirty summoned to recheck ballots in the stunning, through slim, victory of a Progressive, Winston Dowland, against Nancy Sheltra, perhaps the most conservative Republican in the Vermont House. The mood couldn’t help but be partisan, as we Progressives – joined by Democrats who had also endorsed our candidate – wanted to savor this significant upset. But, from the moment we assembled in the venerable chambers of the Orleans County Court House, pluralism began to rule.

We were divided into tri-partisan teams. We were assigned to small tables. We sat elbow to elbow, schooled to our task with even-handed professionalism by the Orleans County Clerk. We checked the number of voters, checked the number of ballots cast, checked the marking of the ballots. Got a number. Checked again. But there was no jockying as the well-crafted structure lead us to cooperate and seek consensus.

“You may agree on any count,” the clerk told us more than once, “or you may agree to disagree.” We learned that, if the latter happened, the disputes would be consigned to a judge. Inquiry, laughter, commiserating small talk, and attentive silence alternated through the hours. But, six thousand-three hundred votes later, no disputes were left on the table.

All thirty of us agreed on every vote. And just nine votes – the same modest margin that launched Bernie Sanders career 25 years ago – separated the Progressive from his Republican rival. Among the tired volunteers there was a sense of gratitude for the mutual civility we’d shared.

But there was another back story of pluralism unfolding for many of us this day. Early in the morning, one of my team-mates stopped, staring at one ballot. “What was he thinking?” she exclaimed, showing us the first of many baffling ballots, where voters in seeming political randomness staggered from one side of the ballot to the other – choosing right, left and center candidates in quick succession. It soon became clear that these voters were the majority, splitting their votes widely and unpredictably. In fact, it was the rather rare voter who showed strict party discipline. All the more reason, then, to have many viable parties to express the varied – perhaps even contradictory – impulses of voters. This is how political pluralism can be made real, and we’ve made a good start of it here in Vermont.

I’m Ellen David Friedman in East Montpelier.

Ellen David Friedman is vice chair of the Vermont Progressive Party and has been active in the labor movement for 25 years. She spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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