With three weeks to go before the August 11 primary election, more Vermonters have already requested absentee ballots than voted in the 2018 primary.
According to the Secretary of State's Office, 113,735 residents requested absentee ballots by Monday afternoon. That exceeds the 107,637 who voted by any means in the 2018 primary and is nearing the 120,132 who voted in the 2016 primary.
It's also more than 22 times the number of people who requested an absentee ballot at an equivalent period before the 2018 primary. That year, just 5,051 residents had done so within 22 days of the election.
"We are very hopeful that we will continue to see this increase," said Secretary of State Jim Condos. "As I've always said, the more people that vote the better our democracy is."
Many of those who requested ballots are still contemplating their options. According to the Secretary of State's Office, town clerks have received 19,237 completed ballots.
Speaking to reporters Monday morning, Condos attributed the rise in absentee voting to the risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as heightened interest in national politics. He also credited his office's decision to, for the first time, send every registered voter a postcard with a prepaid absentee ballot request form.
According to state elections director Will Senning, it's too soon to tell just how many Vermonters availed themselves of that option. But, he said, "We're pretty confident that there was a pretty high return rate on those postcards — and I think it speaks to the idea ... that if you make it as easy as possible for people [to vote], it results in a higher level of participation."
Condos' office also on Monday released a directive dictating changes in procedures for the primary and general elections to address safety concerns posed by the pandemic.
The new regulations make clear that, for both elections, municipalities may establish outdoor and drive-through voting venues; and if a municipality requires the use of a face mask to enter a voting facility, it must make masks available. Voters who receive an absentee ballot ahead of time but don't fill it out are still permitted to vote in person on Election Day. Town clerks are permitted to begin processing ballots up to 30 days before an election but must do so with multiple election officials present. Candidates and campaigns are barred from returning most ballots on behalf of voters.
The directive also establishes that the Secretary of State's Office will mail all registered voters a general election ballot starting September 18. Primary election voters must proactively request absentee ballots.
Condos emphasized that this year's tweaks to election law won't be evident to most voters, except that they will have additional options. "There is one big takeaway: Polling places will be open on Election Day," he said.