Will Vermont make this year’s expansion of vote-by-mail permanent?

By | November 11, 2020

Secretary of State Jim Condos speaks during the statewide canvass of the Vermont 2020 general election results in Montpelier on Tuesday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

For the first time, Vermont’s election officials automatically mailed a ballot to every registered voter in the state this fall, a move that drove record turnout in the Nov. 3 election. 

But as the Covid-19 pandemic persists, state officials and lawmakers will have to decide whether to authorize towns to automatically mail ballots to Vermonters ahead of the Town Meeting Day elections, held on the first Tuesday in March. 

And they could also consider making this year’s expanded mail-in ballot system a permanent feature of the state’s elections. 

Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, a Democrat, said Tuesday that he believes that vote-by-mail is “a positive” and notes that five states have permanent vote-by-mail systems.

But he has said it’s up to the Legislature to make changes in election laws, and he is not recommending a decision about a permanent expansion of Vermont’s vote-by-mail system one way or another.

“I know that there’s already some interest in it and we will provide the information they need to make good value judgments based on it,” Condos told reporters on Oct. 28, referring to the Legislature. 

“There’s a lot of back-end stuff that would have to be done, as well as cost that would have to be considered before we could go forward,” he said. 

Under current law, Vermonters can already request mail-in ballots. But under temporary changes authorized by the secretary of state and prompted by the pandemic, all voters received absentee ballots in the mail in October.

During an event Tuesday at the Vermont History Museum, at which he certified this year’s election results, Condos said the rough cost estimate of running this year’s primary and general elections is $3 million. 

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But that number does not yet include a specific cost estimate for the state’s vote-by-mail expansion, as the Secretary of State’s Office continues to complete its accounting for this year’s elections. 

Gov. Phil Scott said last week that he wants to send ballots to voters before Town Meeting Day in March. 

“We’ve had very low voter turnout for town meeting and this may be a way to bolster that. If we had this much participation in this general election, possibly this could work for Town Meeting Day,” Scott said.

When asked if the state should adopt a permanent, universal mail-in voting system for future elections, Scott said it is an “interesting question” to consider, but didn’t offer an opinion. 

“We’ll be able to reflect on that after the elections are all certified and so forth,” Scott said.

Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, the likely leader of the Vermont Senate in 2021, said she would support a permanent expansion of the vote-by-mail system as long as voters still have the option to vote at the polls — as they did in this month’s election.  

“If we retain that ability for people to choose, I would be supportive of that at this point,” Balint said. “And I leave it up to our Government Operations Committee to work closely with the Secretary of State’s Office to see what’s possible.”

She wants to conduct a post-mortem on how the expanded vote-by-mail system worked before moving forward. 

“It seems like it was a huge success; it seems like the numbers are great. But I need a little bit more information directly from my constituents about how they’re feeling about it,” Balint said.

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Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, the chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee, said the Senate plans to take testimony on the vote-by-mail expansion, and whether to change the system permanently, during the first week the Legislature reconvenes in January — assuming she is reappointed as chair.

She said lawmakers need more information about how things went this fall before they can decide on a permanent expansion.  

“One of the things that I’ve heard is that it would cost about $3 million. It increased our voting from 60% to 77%. Is a 17% increase worth $3 million? I don’t know,” White said. 

“I think we need to take a lot of testimony, but we definitely will be debriefing and finding out what was good and what was bad and, if we go forward, what we should change,” White said. 

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, the Senate minority leader, believes expanding vote-by-mail is a good idea, but the cost of making it permanent could be prohibitive.

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Vermont was able to use federal Covid-19 dollars to help fund this year’s vote-by-mail efforts.

“Those monies are not going to be there next time around. So the issue is going to be competing with state dollars that are going to be very limited,” Benning said. 

“I’m supportive of the policy with proper security measures in place. I’m questioning whether we can actually do it, given the lack of money that may be available,” he said. 

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said she favors making the universal mail-in voting permanent. Johnson lost her reelection campaign last week and has requested a recount. 

“I think that having more people engaged in the democratic process is healthy. Democracy works better when we all weigh in somehow,” Johnson said. 

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“And keep in mind, I’m saying that from the perspective of somebody who lost her seat, in part because of expanded voter turnout,” she said. 

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Condos said that if lawmakers want towns to be able to automatically send voters ballots in the mail for Town Meeting Day, the Legislature would need to act swiftly to pass authorizing legislation. 

Condos said lawmakers would need to act by the end of January to meet towns’ deadlines ahead of the local elections next March 2. 

White said that. through legislation enacted earlier this year, the Legislature gave towns the authority to use Australian (paper) ballots for the 2021 Town Meeting Day, in response to the pandemic. 

She said that, under that legislation, towns clerks already have the option of mailing ballots to residents if they choose to do so, and believes no additional action from the Legislature is necessary. 

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