On Thursday, January 8, 2015 the joint legislature of the state of Vermont will perform its obligation to elect the next governor of the state from among the top three candidates from the recent general election: Governor Peter Shumlin, Scott Milne and Dan Feliciano. The legislature has this obligation because none of these candidates received the 50% plus 1 required by the state’s constitution. This is not all that uncommon in Vermont, and happened most recently in 2010.
Largely, the legislators are being encouraged to vote for one of two reasons. Those who favor Peter Shumlin being re-elected largely call for the legislature to follow tradition and cast their vote for the candidate who received the most votes in the general election state-wide. The tradition argument basically says that you should act in a certain way, cast your vote in this case, simply because people in the past chose to cast their votes that way. While any particular tradition might be valid, to accept it simply because it is tradition is invalid. As Ayn Rand put it in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal:
The argument that we must respect “tradition” as such, respect it merely because it is a “tradition,” means that we must accept the values other men have chosen, merely because other men have chosen them—with the necessary implication of: who are we to change them? The affront to a man’s self-esteem, in such an argument, and the profound contempt for man’s nature are obvious.
By what principle Governor Shumlin?
I noticed that earlier this week Governor Shumlin announced he would, not surprisingly, support an amendment to the state constitution to lower the threshold needed for the top vote-getter, from 50% to 40%, to be the automatic winner and avoid the election being sent to the legislature. My question for the Governor would be, if you are going to throw out the current principle, that to be governor you need a majority of the popular vote or a majority vote of the people’s elected representatives, what principle will you use instead? Why not 30% or 45%? Why not simply back a change to make the sole criteria a simple plurality?
Perhaps recognizing that blindly following tradition is an invalid course of action, some attempt to support it by saying it is the will of the people. After all, they claim, the candidate did get the most votes, so the legislature should confirm that choice. In an opinion piece that appeared in local papers last week, H. Brooke Paige disposed of that argument, pointing out that the Vermont constitution, which all the lawmakers swear to uphold, finds such a plurality insufficient to select the governor.
This appeal to the popular vote leads nicely to the second argument, made largely by those who support Scott Milne. They urge the legislators to vote based on which candidate won in the legislator’s district. However, we do not, or at least should not, elect officials to simply do whatever the majority tells them to do. We elect them to use their best judgment, i.e. their reason, guided by principle, to decide issues that affect the state based on the facts regarding the nature of the options and their consequences. The legislators face many decisions, often complicated and difficult, in a session and the selection of the next governor should be decided no differently than any other. While it is true that the majority can often make the best choice, it is not the best simply because the majority chooses it.
While they are not often advocated as the basis for selecting the next governor, my hope is that when the members of the legislature cast their votes they will rely solely on reason and principles in making their decision. I want each legislator, as they cast their vote, to think only of the following question: Which of these three candidates (and there are three eligible) is the best, rational, choice to lead our state? No other consideration, not tradition or popular vote or party, should enter into their decision.