Vermont lawmakers moved closer Friday to stripping Gov. Phil Scott of a say in whether the November general election should take place by mail-in voting.
Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee, told colleagues Friday afternoon that since Scott and Secretary of State Jim Condos had not reached agreement on the issue, she planned to take up a bill Tuesday that would remove Scott from the equation.
“I’m not going to try to read anybody’s mind, but it seemed in the press conference as if the governor has actually invited us to do that,” White said.
White was referring to Scott's remarks earlier that morning. Asked by Seven Days about the maneuvering, the governor said, "If the legislature wants to take me out of it, that’s fine. I won’t stand in their way. They’re the ones who put me in to begin with.”
Lawmakers originally proposed giving Condos, a Democrat, the sole power to decide how elections should be safely conducted this year given health concerns about voters crowding polling places during a pandemic. In the interests of getting a bill passed quickly, lawmakers agreed to GOP demands that Scott, a Republican, share in the decision.
The compromise bill passed by lawmakers and signed by Scott on March 30 gives authority to the secretary of state, “in consultation and agreement with the Governor,” to make changes to 2020 elections for health and safety reasons.
White said she planned to take up a bill to simply remove the words "and agreement" from the existing law. She said the bill would be public before Tuesday and her committee would take testimony on it.
"I didn’t ask to be put in this position," Scott said at the presser. "The legislature’s the one that put me in this position to add my voice. If they expected a rubber stamp, they picked the wrong person, and maybe they should have just continued to put it in the hands of the secretary of state."
Condos and Scott have been engaged in an increasingly tense standoff over the issue ever since the original law passed. Condos said there isn’t time to switch to mail-in voting for the August 11 primary, but it could be put in place for the November 3 general election — if preparations begin soon.
He and others argue that the best way to protect poll workers and voters from the coronavirus, which public health officials have said could flare up again in the fall, is to mail ballots to every registered voter in the state.
Voters would fill out their ballot, sign it under penalty of perjury and mail it back to their town clerks. Because of the scale of the mail-in voting proposed, the Secretary of State's Office would orchestrate the effort in conjunction with local clerks.
Voters would still have the ability to deliver their mail-in ballots to polling places on election day, but the goal of the effort is keep numbers at the polls as low as possible.
Scott has expressed concerns about the mail-in voting plan, arguing that the decision is premature. He has said he isn’t concerned about voter fraud. Rather, he argued the state should be working to return to normal, not to upend cherished institutions unnecessarily.
Democratic leaders and left-leaning groups like the Vermont Public Interest Research Group have come out strongly in favor of Condos’ plan. Meanwhile Vermont Republican Party chair Deb Billado has excoriated the plan as a liberal “power play” with great risk of fraud. Will Senning, the state’s director of elections and campaign finance, has called the fraud risk of mail-in ballots “infinitesimal.”
Condos has insisted that a decision needs to be made soon to allow elections officials to ink the requisite contracts with printing and mailing houses.
Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) has said it would be best if the two men could agree, but if they couldn't by this week the legislature needed to step in.
Even though the state has made excellent progress in containing COVID-19, Ashe favors moving forward with a mail-in process because experts have said there could be a resurgence of the virus as the economy reopens.
"'Let's say we learn that in September they’re expecting an October increase," Ashe said this week. "Well, it's going to be way too late at that point."
In the latest negotiations between Condos and Scott, Condos proposed an “off ramp” that would allow them to scrap mail-in voting in August if conditions improve. Scott countered by proposing that a five-member committee made up of elections, public health and local officials make the decision.
Condos rejected that plan as abdicating the responsibility the legislature gave to them. “As the elected officials entrusted to make this decision, we need to lead,” Condos wrote.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.