Supersize Senate field stumps voters10/09/08

Chittenden County district largest in U.S.

Oct. 9, 2008

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Voters face many choices on Election Day.

Who should I pick for president? Who can best represent me in Congress? Who will do a good job as governor?

But most contests involve just two major candidates, many of whom have familiar names and well-known positions, easing the burden of becoming an informed voter.

Then there is the Vermont Senate race.

Chittenden County residents will confront a list of 14 candidates, several of them obscure if not utterly unknown to the average citizen. Voters must sort through the field and settle on a half-dozen people to represent the county in the Vermont Senate.

The district has double the number of seats of any other state Senate district in the United States, according to political experts. They say the size confounds voters and ensures incumbents keep their seats.

Williston resident Linda Wolfish, who identified herself as an independent, said she has struggled to select state Senate candidates in past elections. A lack of information about each candidate only makes the choice more difficult.

“It does leave me in the lurch because there are so many candidates,” she said. “I think it is tougher to make a decision.”

In such a large field, “incumbents are the ones who benefit because incumbents have the name recognition,” said Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

Davis said that advantage, enjoyed to some extent by incumbents in all races, is heightened by limited media coverage and the expense of running political advertising that can reach the county’s 150,000 residents.

Incumbent Democrats currently control five of the six Senate seats, although one of those seats is being vacated with the retirement of Jim Condos of South Burlington.

A plurality of Chittenden County voters are in fact Democrats, Davis said, but support for the party is hardly uniform. Some towns, including Williston, barely lean Democratic.

Republicans say the district as drawn is simply unfair.

“I think it favors incumbents more than just Democrats,” said Rob Roper, chairman of the Vermont Republican Party. “It’s impossible for the press to cover, it’s impossible for the voters to identify challengers and you can’t identify voting records.”

The lone Republican incumbent in the district is Diane Snelling, who enjoys the name recognition that goes with being the late governor’s daughter. The party only managed to field the other five candidates through a hastily organized write-in campaign just before last month’s primary. Roper said many potential candidates were simply not interested in running against entrenched incumbents.

Vermont Democratic Party spokeswoman Liz Saxe avoided a direct response to Roper’s critique. She instead emphasized that all the incumbent Democrats were elected with grassroots support.

“Every one of our candidates get out and talk to voters, and they’ve been very successful about it,” she said.

Williston resident Allan Kunigis said he doesn’t even try to learn about all the Senate candidates. He simply selects all Democrats, confident the party’s candidates best represent his views.

“That cuts down half the candidates right there,” he said. “I’m not going to try to evaluate all 14 candidates.”

Informing the voters

The big district has stymied voter education efforts and limited media coverage of any given candidate.

Marge Gaskins, president of the Champlain Valley League of Women Voters, said her organization has given up on trying to organize candidate forums for the Senate race. The last such forum was held in 2002, a year when 16 candidates were seeking the Chittenden County seats.

“It just wasn’t manageable,” she said. “It was not worth the time and effort to do it again.”

The lack of public debate, combined with a large number of candidates, leads to a dearth of media coverage. The Observer in this and past elections has settled on questionnaires that ask candidates to provide basic biographical information and briefly state their views. Other local media outlets provide similarly superficial coverage.

The lack of coverage isn’t a big problem, Saxe asserted. Citizens need only contact candidates directly or check with political parties for more information.

“One of the great things about politics in Vermont is that everyone is so accessible,” she said.

The large field also affects voting patterns, said Terry Bouricius, a former Burlington City Council member and state representative. He studied votes cast in the late 1990s and in 2000 for Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for fair elections.

Bouricius found that many county voters left at least one spot on the ballot blank, choosing on average just 4.5 candidates for state Senate.

The behavior, known as “bullet voting,” is a way for voters to ensure their favorites are elected by avoiding helping less desirable candidates, Bouricius said.

“If they use all six votes, the fifth or sixth choice may just backfire on them,” he said.

Bill Grover, a political science professor at St. Michael’s College, concurred with that conclusion.

“The obvious outcome of our multi-member district … is that unless you favor truly six distinct candidates, in Chittenden County it makes absolutely no sense to vote for six candidates,” Grover wrote in an e-mail. “The rational option is to vote for just those you really want to see elected.”

The large field is partly the result of constitutional requirements for proportionate representation. State law requires Senate districts to follow county lines whenever practical.

Because Chittenden County has more than double the population of any other Vermont county, it gets twice as many Senate seats as any other district. In fact, a piece of Chittenden County has been assigned to Grand Isle County’s district to ensure proportionality.

Davis said the Legislature could permit Chittenden County to be split into two or three Senate districts. But he said that won’t happen until a Republican majority is elected.

“As long as the Legislature is controlled by Democrats, it’s never going to change,” he said.

Who’s running?

Here are the Chittenden County candidates seeking election to the Vermont Senate:

Democrats

Tim Ashe, Burlington

Denise Barnard, Richmond

Ed Flanagan, Burlington

Ginny Lyons, Williston

Hinda Miller, Burlington

Doug Racine, Richmond

Republicans

Darren Adams, Milton

Dennis Benard, South Burlington

Agnes Clift, South Burlington

Robyn Myers-Moore, Essex Junction

Paula Spadaccini, Shelburne

Diane Snelling, Hinesburg

Independent/other

Larkin Forney, Milton

Tom Licata, Burlington