The Vermont Difference: Direct Democracy to the Impact of Progressive Politics

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Johns Hopkins University
The Vermont political environment is home to three, frequently lauded, unique attributes that separates it from other states. This thesis investigates why and how Vermont sees such a prevalence in split ticket voting, how the most successful third party in the country, the Vermont Progressive Party, has been able to establish and maintain success in Vermont for the last forty years, and investigates of the current state, successes, failures, and future of direct democracy in Vermont’s town meetings. The thesis then asks whether each of these elements is replicable outside of the Vermont political environment and what the implications are for expansion of these attributes to other states and nationwide. The research uses a range of methodologies: an IVR survey and in-depth follow up interviews for split ticket voters, in-depth interviews of members of the Vermont Progressive Party, and an online survey of Vermont town clerks. This thesis finds that split ticket voters in Vermont point to a number of reasons for splitting their ticket, most prominently, however, it is due to the close connection that Vermonters feel to their political representatives which can transcend party label. The Progressive Party’s success is largely due to Bernie Sanders’ proof of concept when he became mayor of Burlington, VT, in addition to community-building organization techniques, and a legislative environment that does not overly hinder third party candidates and parties. Direct democracy in the form of open and hybrid town meeting in Vermont provides benefits in the form of negotiation, issue-education, and community building. However, lower participation rates and recent events that are pulling towns away from direct democracy indicate an uncertain future for town meeting direct democracy. The research finds that these three aspects of Vermont’s political environment are more complicated and less than the ideal that many academics, pundits, and activists argue for. However, they also present significant positives and it is clear that certain political environments could lead to expanding split ticket voting and the presence of successful third parties and ultimately potentially less contentious and more representative democracy to states outside of Vermont and the nation. This Master’s thesis was completed under the direction of Dr. Dorothea Wolfson, Dr. Straus and Dr. Hill. It was read by Lee Drutman and Al From.
Direct democracy, town meeting, town meetings, progressive party, progressive coalition, third party, third parties, Bernie Sanders, Australian ballot, hybrid system, open town meetings, split ticket voting, Phil Scott, Governor Scott, democratic defection