How The Election Of 1835 Changed Vermont's Political System

Jan 1, 2015

On Jan. 8, Vermont's 180 lawmakers will cast a ballot to determine who will be Vermont's next governor. That's because the Vermont Constitution calls for a legislative vote when no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote on Election Day.

There was a time in Vermont political history when lawmakers routinely had to elect the governor, and in 1835, it had an enormous impact on the state's political system.

To end a 1835 stalemate, members of the General Assembly appointed Lt. Governor Silas Jennison to be "acting governor" for the next year. Jennison was then reelected to six terms as governor.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Here's why. At that time, statewide elections were held every year. In 1835, incumbent Gov. William Palmer was seeking reelection in a multi-candidate race. Palmer won the most votes but didn't receive a majority, so lawmakers were called on to elect the next governor.

In 1835, Vermont had a unicameral Legislature. There was no Senate, and lawmakers were hopelessly deadlocked on choosing a governor. Between Oct. 9 and Nov. 2, they cast 65 separate ballots, but they were unable to agree on a candidate.

To end their frustration, members of the General Assembly appointed Lt. Governor Silas Jennison to be "acting governor" for the next year.

Washington County senator Bill Doyle is a history professor at Johnson State College and the author of The Vermont Political Tradition.

Doyle says Vermonters were so upset at the legislative stalemate in the governor's race that they gave their final support to a Constitutional amendment that created the Vermont Senate in 1836.

"[There was] huge disappointment and almost disgust at the Legislature for going through 65 ballots and not be coming to a conclusion,” said Doyle. “The Senate had been proposed for many decades before, but I think the disappointment with that election maybe put it over the top."

Vermonters were so upset at the legislative stalemate in the 1835 governor's race that they gave their final support to a Constitutional amendment that created the Vermont Senate in 1836.

Acting Governor Jennison was then reelected to six terms as governor. Doyle says Jennison ushered in a period of reform politics in Vermont. He was against slavery, didn't support the death penalty, opposed debtor's prison and wanted to outlaw the sale of alcohol.

Lawmakers decided to put the question of prohibition directly in front of voters in a statewide referendum. Doyle says it barely passed, but it remained in effect until the beginning of the 20th century.

"It's too hot an issue, have a referendum vote and the referendum for drinking won by 521 votes,” says Doyle. “Prohibition lasted until 1902, when they went local option, but for 50 years we had prohibition."

Bill Doyle, a Washington County senator and professor at Johnson State College, refers to the 25 years before the Civil War as one of the most unstable periods in Vermont political history: There were at least nine times when the Legislature was called on to elect a governor.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR/file

Doyle refers to the 25 years before the Civil War as one of the most unstable periods in Vermont political history. There were at least nine times when the Legislature was called on to elect a governor. In 1870, a Constitutional amendment was passed to extend the governor's term from one year to two.

"There's a major amendment to the Constitution after the Civil War which provided for a governor could serve for two years,” said Doyle. “And that had to do with the instability situation."

The two-year term for statewide office holders is still in place today, and Vermont and New Hampshire are the only two states in the country that have held on to this tradition.