In the closing days of the 2020 election, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) is calling on all of the candidates for Vermont’s top three offices to agree to support the person who wins the most votes in their race.
Under Vermont’s Constitution, if no candidate for Governor, Lieutenant Governor or Treasurer wins a majority of votes cast, the General Assembly of the Legislature chooses the winner. This has happened approximately 70 times since 1778. In almost every case, legislators have chosen the candidate who received the most votes. But there have been several instances where legislators did not respect the will of the voters and chose one of the other top three finishers.
“Finishing second doesn’t make you the winner, but that’s not a lesson that every candidate has learned,” said Paul Burns, Executive Director of VPIRG. “President Donald Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose, and even in Vermont, we have a recent example of a losing candidate who refused to concede the race.”
Scott Milne, now a candidate for Lt. Governor, took second place in the 2014 race for Governor. But he did not concede defeat in that race and instead spent weeks asking legislators to put aside the will of the voters and install him as Governor. He failed in his effort, but nearly 70 legislators did vote to make him Governor despite his losing the race.
Here’s what Milne said at the time, referring to paid advertising urging legislators to elect him Governor: “It points out to the people that we’ve got a constitution that essentially says we’ve had no election for governor. That happens on January 8 (when legislators would meet to vote). It points out to regular folks that if you want change, contact your legislator.”
Despite what the state Constitution allows, Vermont does have a long tradition of concessions being offered by losing candidates. Here’s what Milne said about that honorable practice in 2014: “All this mumbo jumbo about how there’s a precedent of people conceding is simply not true. It’s [the legislature’s] job to decide who’s going to be best for Vermont.”
“Respecting the results of a fair and democratic election is not mumbo jumbo,” said Burns. “It’s one of the most important principles on which our country was founded.”
With multiple candidates running for each of the top offices, it is mathematically possible that the top vote-getter in each race could be held to less than fifty percent of the vote.
VPIRG believes that voter confidence in the elections process will increase if every candidate is on record making clear that they will respect the will of voters. This means that candidates would concede the race should they fail to win the most votes and they would urge legislators to vote for the top finisher if no candidate receives a majority.
“Until we have the means of ensuring that Vermont has majority winners in elections, as we would have with a ranked choice voting system for instance, then the candidate with a plurality of votes should win,” said Burns.
President Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power and his false claims about practices such as mail-in voting loom over the nation as a potential threat to our democracy.
In 2016, then-candidate Trump also refused to say whether he would respect the outcome of the election if it did not go his way. This prompted the following response from the late Republican U.S. Senator John McCain: “I didn’t like the outcome of the 2008 election. But I had a duty to concede, and I did so without reluctance. A concession isn’t just an exercise in graciousness. It is an act of respect for the will of the American people, a respect that is every American leader’s first responsibility.”
“We’re calling on every candidate running for one of Vermont’s top offices to declare without reservation that they will respect the results and abide by the will of the people. An unwillingness to do so would indicate a critical failure of leadership at a time when we can ill afford it,” said Burns.