Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
I've written a couple of times (here and here) about the possibility that the Vermont House of Representatives will get to pick the next governor, which is what happens if no one gets 50% of the vote. It turns out that the Associated Press offered some useful historical context a couple of months ago:
Only once in the past century have Vermont lawmakers chosen the also-ran over the person who got the highest number of votes.
In the 1976 race for lieutenant governor, the Legislature chose Republican T. Garry Buckley over Democrat John Alden in a 90-87 vote -- even though Alden captured more votes at the polls.
Veteran lobbyist Steve Kimbell said lawmakers likely would not want to buck the will of voters. "Legislators ignore the will of plurality of voters at their own electoral risk," he said. Two years later, "The throw-the-bums-out attitude would cause a lot of pain."
University of Vermont political science professor Garrison Nelson says it would be "political suicide."
Under most circumstances, I don't doubt that Dr. Nelson has it right. However, a couple of factors at least make it possible that the Vermont House could opt against the popular vote winner -- even if lawmakers don't have a political death wish.
The three candidates are Republican Gov. Jim Douglas, Democrat Gaye Symington and independent Anthony Pollina. Douglas is the favorite to get the most votes. Pollina will almost certainly come in third.
But Pollina, who until recently was a member of the Vermont Progressive Party, is likely to run to the left of Douglas and Symington. In other words, you can make a case that the second choice of Pollina voters would be Symington and that, when Vermont lawmakers decide who the public wants, his votes should count for her.
The question is whether Vermont Democratic legislators would make that case. If Douglas wins 49% to Symington's 41% to Pollina's 10%, it would take a lot of chutzpah to argue that the will of the people is for Symington to be governor. But what about 46% to 45% to 11%? The debate could get very interesting.
The Vermont House has 93 Democrats, 49 Republicans and 8 others (who are mainly Progressives, I believe). So it wouldn't take every Democrat to throw the election to Symington, just most of them.
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