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Ask Bob: How Vermont Makes Amendments To Its State Constitution

The empty Vermont Senate chamber
Oliver Parini
For VPR, File
To make a change to the Vermont Constitution, a proposed amendment must first be introduced in the Vermont Senate.

How are amendments made to the Vermont Constitution? And how many amendments have there been over the years? VPR's senior political reporter Bob Kinzel provides historical context around this process and a look at what amendments are proposed for this year.

How to amend the Vermont Constitution

It isn't a simple process to change the state's consitution. Here's what has to happen:

1. A proposed amendment is introduced in the Vermont Senate

2. A Senate committee has to approve that proposed amendment

3. The entire Senate then considers the amendment, and it has to pass with at least 20 votes.

  • Note: After this third stage, there cannot be any changes to the amendment! While changes can be made on the Senate floor, after that the amendment language is final.

4. It then goes to the Vermont House, which has to pass the amendment with a simple majority

5. We have to wait for another Legislature to be voted in

6. That newly elected Vermont Senate must pass the amendment with a simple majority.

7. Then that newly elected Vermont House must pass it with a simple majority.

8. If all that happens in the Legislature, then the voters get to weigh in! The amendment is put to Vermont voters in the next statewide election, and if a majority support the proposal, then the amendment is made to the Vermont Constitution.

From start to finish, this whole process can take three to five years — and we've actually had amendments that affect this process of how amendments get made.

Prior to 1870, amendments were considered by a 13-member group called the Council of Censors. But then an 1870 amendment took the responsibility from the council and instead implemented the multi-step legislative process we still use.

However, as part of that change in 1870, it was decided that amendments to the Vermont Constitution could only be introduced every 10 years.

That timeframe was in effect for almost a century. In 1974, an amendment was approved that said an amendment to the Vermont Constitution could now be introduced every four years — and that's where we're at today.

Vermont's amendment success rate

Over the last 150 years, there have been 200 proposed amendments. Some examples:

  • There have been 19 attempts to move to a four-year term for governor. 
  • Another common amendment proposal has been to deal with what happens when no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote.
  • One amendment proposal sought to have the lieutenant governor and governor elected as a team, whereas another proposal looked to abolish the lieutenant governor's office.

But of those 200 total proposed amendments, only 30 have made it all the way to the voter consideration step. Ultimately two of those were rejected by voters, but the other 28 were approved as amendments to the Vermont Constitution.
The most recent instance of voters approving an amendment to the Vermont Consitution was in 2010, to allow 17 year olds to vote in the primary election if they will be 18 by November's general election.

Proposed amendments this session

There are three constitutional amendments up for consideration this year (so far... it's early in the session, so more could be introduced):

1. A four-year term for governor. Yes, again. You can learn more about Vermont's two-year gubernatorial term in this Ask Bob.

2. Eliminating slavery. Right now there is a qualifying age provision in the Vermont Constitution regarding the prohibition of slavery, so this would get rid of that.

3. A right of privacy. Backers want this state constitution amendment passed, in part, in the event that Roe v. Wade is overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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