A bill that would pave the way for Vermont’s first mail-in election to be held in November advanced Wednesday in the Vermont House.
Lawmakers rejected concerns that mailing ballots to people who hadn’t requested them might lead to voter fraud, stressing that mail-in voting would keep voters and poll workers safe in the event that COVID-19 made a fall resurgence.
The vote was held one day after the State of Georgia offered the nation a reminder of the challenges posed by in-person voting during a pandemic. Rep. Marybeth Redmond (D-Essex Junction) evoked the images of long lines, frustrated voters and overwhelmed poll workers there as she urged her colleagues to support the bill, which had already passed the Senate.
“Bottom line, Georgians were unable to cast their votes,” Redmond said. “I believe what transpired yesterday foreshadows potential issues to come in Vermont’s general election this November if we don’t move forward with an all-vote-by-mail program.”
The bill prevailed on second reading by a vote of 106 to 32. It will need a final vote Friday to be sent to the governor’s desk.
The bill has created a fair amount of confusion but is actually quite simple. In March the legislature gave Secretary of State Jim Condos “in consultation and agreement with the Governor” the power to make changes to 2020 elections for public health reasons.
Scott raised a series of concerns and insisted that the decision didn’t need to be made until August. Condos countered that time was of the essence. To break the stalemate, lawmakers decided to simply remove Scott from the equation.
The new bill removes the words “and agreement” from the original one, leaving the decision entirely up to Condos. He strongly supports a mail-in election in November due to the uncertainly about the trajectory of the pandemic.
Stripping the governor from such a decision, however, riled Republicans, who have repeatedly raised the specter of voter fraud, despite assurances from elections officials that it is effectively nonexistent in the state.
Several Republican members expressed concern that mail-in voting might allow people to be unduly influenced about how to vote.
Rep. Linda Myers (R-Essex) said she supports mail-in voting. It works in Oregon, where her sister lives, she said. But she also said she worried that Vermont’s version was being “thrown together” without enough attention to “ballot security.”
Myers proposed an amendment that would have restricted who could submit people’s ballots for them. Currently, absentee ballots can be turned in to a town clerk “by any means.” Myers wanted the law to state that only certain people could return an absentee ballot: the voter, a justice of the peace, authorized family members or caregivers.
Without such protections, Vermont risks “harvesting of ballots by individuals or organizations that may attempt to thwart the intention of individuals or even groups of voters," she said.
Rep. Felisha Leffler (R-Enosburg Falls) said she was concerned about political action committees and “hyper-political agenda groups” being allowed to engage in collecting ballots.
The Vermont Public Interest Research Group helps register voters and educates them about issues. But Paul Burns, its executive director, said their volunteers don't engage in ballot harvesting. Nevertheless, this is not a time to reduce the ways people can vote, he said.
"We think this bill should be about removing obstacles to voting, not adding new ones," Burns wrote in an email to Seven Days.
It's not a good look, however, when interest groups and even politicians on the ballot can gather them up and turn them in on behalf of voters, said Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe). Some might even do so with “ill intent,” she said. “I’m not accusing anybody of doing that, but the perception is there,” she said.
The majority’s perception, however, was that such risks were negligible.
“The more people who have the opportunity to vote by mail, the fewer opportunities there will be for the disease to spread,” Rep. Robin Scheu (D-Middlebury) said.