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Bryan: Fair Representation

Writer E. B. White once said that Democracy is “the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time.” Last November, less than 40% of Vermont’s eligible voters participated, so it might be said that the legislature just getting underway in Montpelier is not by White’s terms a democratic institution.

By other measures, however, Vermont’s legislative system might be considered one of the most democratic in America – if not in fact, the most democratic.

15 states bind their electorates by limiting the number of terms each legislator may serve. We do not. We trust ourselves and our votes.

In only 11 states do voters elect their legislatures every two years instead of every four years, doubling their opportunity to vote. Vermont is one of them.

We (along with only 12 other states) do not limit the length of our legislative secessions. Our elected officials can legislate each year as long as they deem necessary.

Because we elect a lot of legislators for our size, each individual’s vote in Vermont counts for a lot. New York’s lower body has 150 members. So does ours. The math shows that each citizen’s vote in Vermont is worth 30 times as much as in New York. Since California’s lower body has only 80 members, every Vermonters vote is worth about 106 times as much as a Californian’s.

The best thing about our legislature, however, may be that it fits us.

This winter we mark the 50th anniversary of the last session of the old Vermont legislature – the one with 246 members of the House of Representatives, one for every town and city in the state no matter its population. Burlington (with 38,000 citizens) had one representative in the House of Representatives. So too did Stratton with 24 citizens. So in the interest of fairness, we re-designed it.

Tom Rice, currently academic Director of the University of Iowa’s Education Center, writing in the Journal of American Federalism ranked Vermont the best state in America on his Civic Culture Index, which summarizes a state’s democratic proclivities.

Harvard’s Robert Putnam ranks Vermont 3rd (behind only the Dakotas) on his Civic Culture index published in the immensely influential book, Bowling Alone. So as our legislature once again begins its deliberations in Montpelier we have every reason to rejoice in its accomplishments, take pride in our citizenship and (most importantly) resolve to make sure that the sorry performance in last fall ’s elections becomes but an asterisk on the pages of our common commitment to democracy.

Frank Bryan is a writer and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Vermont.
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