The Vermont Senate advanced a bill Tuesday to strip Republican Gov. Phil Scott of the ability to determine how elections will be conducted in the state this year, a decision that followed a robust debate pitting fears of a pandemic against worries of voter fraud.
Senators voted 21-7, largely along party lines, to give Secretary of State Jim Condos, a Democrat, the sole authority to decide how statewide elections will be held in 2020. Lawmakers had previously granted that power jointly to Scott and Condos, hoping that whatever agreement the two struck would reflect a bipartisan compromise.
Instead, an increasingly tense standoff between the two men ensued on an issue tinged by the highly partisan national debate over how to balance people’s health with their right to vote.
Condos argues the best way to ensure a safe general election in November is to mail ballots to all registered voters in the state, perhaps 500,000 people. Groundwork needs to begin now, he says.
Scott would prefer to return to normality. He contends that the decision doesn’t need to made until after the August 11 primary and says it should be made by a committee with no elected officials.
While Scott has not raised fears of voter fraud, his Republican allies seized on that theme Tuesday.
Even as they acknowledged that voter fraud has not been a major issue in Vermont, Republican senators questioned whether allowing mail-in voting would increase its risk.
Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) called it unwise to mail out ballots “willy-nilly” to notoriously inaccurate voter checklists when a more secure system — requiring people to request an absentee ballot if they want one — already exists.
Instead of a system that works well now, “we literally let loose potentially 300,000 to 500,000 live ballots and expect it all to work out perfectly fine,” Benning said.
Sen. Brian Collamore (R-Rutland) raised concerns about ballot harvesting, noting that there was nothing to stop advocacy groups or partisans from rounding up ballots for others.
All six Republicans in the chamber voted against the bill, as did Sen. Bobby Starr (D-Essex/Orleans), who said his colleagues were “overreacting.”
Democrats retorted forcefully.
“The real fraud is this fallacy that there’s rampant voter fraud, and it appears every election like a bad rash,” Sen. Becca Balint (D-Windham) said.
Balint said it was unfortunate that the debate was taking place in a national political context where President Donald Trump’s string of lies and misleading claims had recently turned to “rampant, widespread voter fraud, which is not actually a thing.”
She called it a “fear-based argument” that was just the latest in a long history of efforts to erode the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting.
Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, praised the vote but denounced the minority's focus on fraud.
"It is a shame that this tactic of spreading false fears over fraud has found any traction at all in Vermont," Burns said in a press release.
To show just how limited voter fraud would continue to be, Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison) calmly read through several of the steps someone would need to take to file an absentee ballot fraudulently.
They would have to get hold of someone else’s ballot, pretend to be that person, sign a document under penalty of perjury and return it to that person's town clerk, all at the risk of fines and imprisonment.
“I don’t believe we have many Vermonters willing to perjure themselves in a formal manner like that,” Bray said.
If passed as expected on third reading by the Senate Wednesday, the bill would still need the approval of the House in coming days.