Gov. Phil Scott (left) and Secretary of State Jim Condos
Democratic lawmakers moved forward Tuesday with plans to strip Republican Gov. Phil Scott of a say in whether the November general election should be conducted largely by mail.
The Senate Government Operations Committee approved a bill that would remove Scott's power to decide how to conduct elections in 2020, leaving that authority solely with Secretary of State Jim Condos, a Democrat.
Condos and state elections officials have said they want to mail general election ballots to all registered voters to keep crowds small at the polls due to COVID-19 concerns. Health experts have raised the prospect of outbreaks in the fall.
“We just want to make certain that every Vermonter has the ability to vote safely in what will quite likely be a high-turnout election,” Chris Winters, deputy secretary of state, told the committee.
Scott has said he thinks the decision could wait until after the August 11 primary. Elections officials say there isn’t time to switch to mail-in voting by that date, but postcards will remind voters that they can request an absentee ballot. The governor would prefer to move toward restoring a sense of normalcy by holding a regular November election, if possible.
Elections officials have countered that the decision needs to be made now because mailing and printing contracts, voter education, and clerk training all need to commence to ensure the election goes smoothly.
“We need to get to work without worrying whether the rug is going to be pulled out from under us at a later date,” Winters said.
Weeks of negotiations between Condos and Scott resulted in a standoff fraught with partisan overtones despite both men claiming that election safety is not a partisan issue.
A previous emergency bill passed in March authorized the secretary of state to make changes to 2020 elections for health and safety reasons “in consultation and agreement with the Governor.” The bill passed by the committee simply removes the words “and agreement.”
The committee's vote was 4-1, with Sen. Brian Collamore (R-Rutland) the lone opponent. Collamore did not explain his vote, but he said he had heard from a few town clerks who expressed concerns about Condos’ plan for a mail-in fall election.
Carol Dawes, the Barre City clerk and chair of the Vermont Municipal Clerks & Treasurers Association Legislative Committee, told lawmakers there was nearly universal support for the change among the state's 246 town clerks.
Collamore also asked whether organizations could gather mail-in ballots from people and deliver them to polling places. There have been isolated instances of such “ballot harvesting” resulting in voter fraud, but Winters stressed it hasn’t happened in Vermont.
“It’s not that we’re not concerned about voter fraud, it’s that we have not seen it happening in the State of Vermont,” Winters said.
Scott has signaled acquiescence to the change.
Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, testified that he hopes 90 percent of the votes cast in the general election are mailed in. VPIRG and other groups have been pressuring Scott to agree to the change.
“It really shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” Burns said. “We are all concerned about making elections safe and secure, and I just think this is the best way to do it this year.”