Gov. Phil Scott is coming under increasing pressure to allow Vermont’s November general election to be conducted by mail, something he continues to resist despite the pleas of state elections officials that planning needs to begin now.
Earlier this year, the legislature gave Secretary of State Jim Condos the authority to change the format of elections held in Vermont in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic “in consultation and agreement with the Governor.”
Scott argues that a decision about the general election doesn’t need to be made until after the August primaries. He says he’s not worried about voter fraud, an issue that some other Republicans around the nation have raised to oppose mail-in elections. Scott’s preference is to hold a regular in-person election if possible in November to allow the state to continue its steady return to normalcy.
“I just don’t understand the need to make the decision today ... whether it's going to be mandatory in November,” Scott said of a mail-in election.
Condos and state elections officials have been insisting that planning for a mail-in election needs to begin now to ensure that ballots and envelopes can be printed, volunteers can be trained, voters can be properly educated about the change, and polling places — which will still be open — can be kept safe.
Now a cadre of liberal groups is criticizing the governor for his vacillation, arguing that continued delay would sow uncertainty and make it harder for a mail-in election to be held successfully.
“I cannot imagine what the governor is dawdling over at this point, but it is bordering on reckless to fail to move forward immediately with this decision,” said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, in a call with reporters on Friday.
States usually take years to transition to mail-in elections, so Vermont should not be forced to make that shift “on the fly in the final weeks of an election season,” Burns said.
The state's small elections staff needs to focus now on making that transition, he said. “They shouldn’t be planning to run an election in two different ways, and that’s what the governor is asking them to do right now,” Burns said.
The governor’s idea also ignores the very real likelihood that the coronavirus could return in the fall with little warning, said Kiah Morris, the movement politics director of Rights & Democracy Vermont.
If at that point the mail-in election process and the education campaign needed to support it are not in place, “we’re going to be behind the eight ball and disenfranchising people unnecessarily,” she said.
Complicating the issue: The August 11 primaries are going to be run in the traditional fashion because there isn’t enough time to make the switch to a mail-in election.
The deadline for candidates to get on the August ballot is coming up fast. The nomination period opens on May 14 and runs until 5 p.m. on May 28.
The major change in the August primaries will be that, in an effort to limit turnout at polling places, voters will receive a postcard reminding them that they can request an absentee ballot.
But Condos has said he’s less worried about the primaries, which have lower turnout rates and don’t result in final representation decisions, than the general election.
Scott has noted that it could be confusing for voters to be told to prepare for a regular election in August and a mail-in election in the fall. But Burns and others say that what would be confusing would be to try to educate people about a mail-in election that may or may not happen in November.
“I’m very hopeful the governor will come around on this and will give it a green light soon,” Burns said.
Correction, May 8, 2020: Kiah Morris' title was misstated in an earlier version of this story.