Support for an Ethics Commission in Vermont

Finding that a wide majority of Vermonters (74 percent) support the establishment of an ethics commission is not surprising. What’s not to support? When the Castleton Poll (Sept. 2016) asked Vermonters whether they would support or oppose creating an ethics commission, there was no context about the need for or cost of creating such a body; so naturally, it is not surprising that most would support such a benign concept.

In that same poll, however, Castleton asked about the perceived need for an ethics panel. This is a very different concept, of course. Here is the precise wording of each question:

1. Right now, Vermont state government is considering whether or not to establish an independent panel to investigate potential ethics violations where state officials are involved. Would you support or oppose the establishment of a state ethics commission in Vermont?
2. Some have argued that as a small state, Vermont does not have the problems of other states, and therefore an independent ethics commission is not necessary and would only be a bother. Others have argued that Vermont needs an independent oversight body to address concerns about the ethical behavior of public officials. With whom do you most agree?

We used a split-sample approach—asking a random selection of half of the panel on question and the other half the other question—to keep the concepts separated. The rationale for the split sample is that if a respondent receive both question in the order above, once someone said that they support a commission, they would likely be compelled to say that the commission was needed; if someone opposed establishing an ethics panel, they would not likely then respond that they think one is needed. Alternatively, if we reversed the order of the two, those suggesting a need for a panel would be hard pressed not to support establishing one, and vice versa. By asking all respondents only one of the two questions, we have decoupled the concepts, and by assigning the questions to respondents randomly, we have removed any bias for one question or concept over another.

I believe that the most relevant statistic is the percent of Vermonters who feel that an ethics panel is needed (67 percent). Two-thirds of all those receiving the question agreed with the notion that a commission to “address concerns about the ethical behavior of public officials” is needed. While the number of Vermonters who believe an ethics commission is needed in their state is lower than the number who would support the concept of establishing a commission, it still represents a large majority.

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In light of the EB-5 story (http://vtdigger.org/eb5-an-investigation/) suggesting possible corruption in handling investments, it is reasonable to expect that the levels of support and the feeling that such a commission is needed have both risen (although without empirical verification, this is mere speculation on my part).

Generally, it is safe to assume that calls for an ethics commission will be well-received by the Vermont public. A look at the issue by party can be found on the Polling Institute web site: http://www.castleton.edu/about-castleton/the-castleton-polling-institute/poll-results/vermont-issues-poll.

Who is going to show up in August?

With so much energy focusing on the presidential nominating contests in both parties, when will Vermonters turn attention to the gubernatorial election? In the VPR Poll from February 2016, a vast majority of Vermonters said that they were following news about the Vermont Governor’s election either not too closely (40 percent) or not at all (26 percent). Clearly, in advance of 2016 Town Meeting Day, Vermonters had not yet begun to consider who they would like to see replace Peter Shumlin as governor of the Green Mountain State.

So when will Vermonters begin to focus on this important decision?

The state-wide primary elections will be August 9th, and if past behavior is indicative of future behavior—and it almost always is—turnout will be dismal. The 2014 Primary election turnout was only 9 percent. Let me state that another way for emphasis: less than 1 out of every 10 eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2014 state primary election.

In the open race of 2010, the last time there was a race without an incumbent from either party, the turnout for the state primary was 24 percent. In the Democratic primary, Peter Shumlin narrowly edged out Doug Racine, Deborah Markowitz, and Matt Dunne for the Democratic nomination. In a hotly contested primary race where four candidates received more than 20 percent of the Democratic vote, less than a quarter of all voters came out to cast a ballot. Additionally, this election was held later in August (August 27th) when Vermonters were coming out of the summer laze and more likely to tune into news and politics. In early August, many will still be focused on vacation and summer activities.

So high interest in the 2016 gubernatorial primary seems unlikely. The candidates will struggle to gain the attention of eligible voters. This will hurt most candidates without strong followings going in to the election.

Given his high name recognition and favorability, Phil Scott is obviously in a good place heading to the primary election, while Bruce Lisman has to gain public attention around his campaign.

On the Democratic side, it’s hard to know who is advantaged by the public’s low attention level, although is it likely that getting into the race far later than Matt Dunne and Sue Minter will not likely hurt Peter Galbraith in the primary. The race appears to be wide open.