Suddenly, everybody wants to amend the Constitution

Funny thing has happened in recent days, as we approach the legislature’s vote for governor:  Everyone’s talking about a Constitutional change to make sure this never happens again.

Bill Doyle must be enjoying a quiet “told you so” moment, considering that he first proposed such a change in 1974.

Nineteen seventy-four. Hell, a lot of you whippersnappers weren’t even born yet.

But did anyone listen to The Perpetual Senator? Nope, this is Vermont; we don’t fix things until they convincingly prove they’re broken. As the joke goes,

“How many Vermonters does it take to change a light bulb?”

“Change it? That was my grandfather’s light bulb!”

There are many ideas for a new way of electing a governor when no candidate receives a majority. Doyle would lower the threshold for election from the current 50% plus one to 40%. Some, including Sen. Joe Benning (on VPR yesterday) would prefer a runoff election. Some see an opening for Instant Runoff Voting, to avoid the hassle of a second vote. Some, such as outgoing State Rep. Tom Koch, simply say “We’ve gotta change this” without endorsing a new course.

The common ground, after weeks of uncertainty? We can’t let this happen again, ever.

Even those who’ve supported Scott Milne’s stubborn refusal to concede have concluded that We can’t let this happen again, ever.

Does that seem the least bit contradictory to you? People who are encouraging and enabling Milne’s pursuit of the governorship don’t want anyone else to do what he’s doing. Perhaps they’ve realized the slow corrosive effect of such machinations.

The system, as outdated as it is, was working fine as long as there was a tacit understanding among Vermont politicians: I’ll concede to a plurality winner if you will. Former Gov. Jim Douglas realizes the expediency of this approach, and advised Milne to concede the race after the election results were made official.

But Milne, stomping to the beat of his own drummer as always, forged ahead. Which has forced the state’s political class to confront a flaw in our system, and contemplate changing the Constitution.

Which brings up another contradiction. Milne supporters have carefully parsed every word of the Constitution in search of the hidden wisdom of our predecessors, in much the same way as federal Originalists treat the U.S. Constitution as a sacred text dictated by God himself. But now that they’re facing the consequences of a rickety process created in very different times* — a process that puts us in a class with only Mississippi in how we settle majority-free gubernatorial elections, and that’s a class you never want to be in — they want to tear that bit out of the Constitution and, as Rep. Heidi Scheuermann would say, bring it into the 21st century. I guess that bit wasn’t so sacred after all.

*Tom Koch’s opinion piece, posted on VTDigger, nails the anachronistic character of our current process. “Relic,” he calls it. 

Well, it’s progress, and I’ll take it.

However, I’m doubtful that the legislature will greenlight a Constitutional change. Tempers will cool after Milne has been dispatched back to the business world. There will be squabbles over the best process. There will be many whose knee-jerk reaction to change is “But that was my grandfather’s light bulb!”

And that, combined with the Legislature’s tendency to postpone action whenever possible, will kill any and all amendments.

And we’ll go back to living with a bad process and hoping we never get another Scott Milne again.

 

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2 thoughts on “Suddenly, everybody wants to amend the Constitution

  1. Bud Haas

    Perhaps you’d like to elucidate on exactly what the terrible “corrosive” effect of this particular political journey was…or is?

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Short version: Until now, there’s been a gentleman’s agreement to award the office to the highest vote-getter, which is a nearly universal principle in American politics. What Milne has done is open the door to further machinations down the road. Say, in 2016 there are three candidates: the Republican wins 48% of the vote, the Dem gets 46% and the Prog gets 4%. Liberals could claim an “ideological majority,” and they’d be on firmer ground than Milne.

      If they did so, would the “winner” be universally accepted as legitimate? No. Would Republicans feel as if the game had been rigged against them? Of course they would.

      Milne’s post-election candidacy could also raise doubts about Shumlin’s legitimacy, allowing his opponents to attack him as somehow inappropriately holding the office.

      The gentleman’s agreement may not be the best way to solve things — a runoff or IRV system would be better — but it had worked until now, and it had tamped down any talk of illegitimacy. Unless we change the system, the Milne precedent will create at least the possibility of bad feelings down the road.

      Reply

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