Political reforms

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(Host) We’ve been through a rough season of political campaigns. Commentator Allen Gilbert wants some of the remaining energy channeled to long-term reforms.

(Gilbert) It’s said that if you don’t like sausage being made, don’t watch laws being passed. The same can now be said of political races. We’ve just endured an election that’s exposed a whole series of warts on the way we choose our political leaders.

Mud-slinging was the politer aspect of the presidential campaign. Intimidation and attempts at voter fraud were its nastier side.

In a radio interview two weeks before the election, former president Jimmy Carter said that his monitoring group could not monitor our election. It didn’t meet the standards that his group sets for ensuring fair elections.

We’re preaching democracy to Iraq and to Afghanistan, and to the countries that once belonged to the Soviet bloc. But we’re not coming across as a paragon of democratic virtues.

I’m afraid that our problems have seeped to local levels. Several weeks ago my town lost its reapportionment appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court. We had argued that two years ago we were gerrymandered into a new, arbitrary district. The district saddles two counties and loops over several mountains. It’s made up of so many villages and towns that two representatives are assigned to it. The Legislative Reapportionment Board had recommended a different configuration. When that was rejected, our senators and representative suggested another plan.

But the party in power wanted to use reapportionment to increase its power — the same tactic Tom Delay has used so effectively in Texas. The new district makes so little sense that the two incumbents ran unopposed in Tuesday’s election. Possible challengers figured that there just wasn’t enough of a community of interest around which to build a viable campaign.

I am not na ve. Politics is all about power — whether on the national level or on the local level. But increasingly those in power have been willing to put more and more of our democracy on the table in a gamble for more power.

I’m also not na ve about the things we can change. Abolishing the Electoral College, for example, would be a huge task. But there are some other initiatives that we can take here in Vermont to improve things — baby steps towards a better democracy.

The first is to establish clear, enforceable principles by which legislative reapportionment must be measured — measured either by the legislature itself or by the courts. Reapportionment happens every 10 years. Every time we do it, there are problems. Then we forget about the problems because the next round of redistricting seems so far away. We can’t indulge in this sort of willful amnesia. We need to think about this now.

The second baby step is to institute instant voter run-off elections in our state. Voters could then support the candidate of their real choice. Third-party candidates could run without accusations of being spoilers. And the Legislature wouldn’t be given the chance to hold secret votes to pick winners in close statewide elections.

The energy of this year’s campaigns was high. We need to channel that energy to real change — if only baby steps.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues.

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