Global pandemic be damned: Vermonters on Tuesday smashed their previous state primary voting record — and it wasn't even close.
Unofficial results from the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office show that 170,586 people voted in the primary election, a 39 percent higher turnout than the recent primary record of 122,437 set in 2000.
The remarkable showing suggests that the circumstances surrounding this election cycle — an unprecedented health and economic crisis, nationwide protests for criminal justice reforms, and a presidential race featuring one of the most polarizing figures in modern history — have gotten the attention of the electorate.
Another possible explanation: It was easier to vote.
“The easier you make it for people to participate, the more participation you have,” explained Deb Markowitz, who was Vermont’s secretary of state from 1999 to 2010.
Indeed, seeking to encourage people to vote by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic, Vermont sent each registered voter a postage-paid postcard in June that allowed them to request an absentee ballot for the primary.
Voters responded by asking for more than 150,000 ballots over the next two months, and though not every ballot was returned, more than 110,000 had been received by time polls opened Tuesday morning. Some of the additional 50,000-plus votes that came in throughout the day were from people who had already completed their ballots at home and simply dropped them off.
The net result: a 35 percent statewide turnout, well beyond the typical 20 to 25 percent of past primaries.
Many municipalities reported even higher showings. Town-by-town breakdowns of the unofficial results show more than 60 with voter turnout above 40 percent. Several towns, including Richmond and Norwich, broke the 50 percent mark.
Some towns had vote totals even higher than those of previous presidential elections. Waterbury received 1,200 absentee ballots before Tuesday and took in about 440 more votes in person that day. By the end of the night, the town had tallied nearly 200 more votes than it had in the 2016 general election.
While polling places still welcomed anyone who preferred the in-person experience, many voters seem to have appreciated the ease of mail-in voting.
Williston's town clerk told Seven Days on Tuesday that some voters attached notes of gratitude to their ballot envelopes.
“People really, really, really liked this,” said Williston Town Clerk Sarah Mason.
The clerks themselves also seem to have adjusted well to the new process. Empowered by Secretary of State Jim Condos to start tabulating absentee ballots up to a month before the election, some clerks had already counted early votes before Tuesday, avoiding a last-minute crunch. Six hours after the polls were closed, nearly all of Vermont's 275 precincts had reported results, and all major races had a winner.
“You've done Vermont proud,” the Secretary of State’s Office wrote on Twitter late Tuesday night, commending both voters and local election officials.
Tuesday's results will fuel questions about whether to make mail-in voting permanent. Five states currently hold all-mail elections, and more than 20 states have recently expanded absentee voting access in light of the pandemic.
Condos, however, told Seven Days earlier this summer that he thinks lawmakers should wait until the state has a better idea of the costs. The state is spending about $3 million to $4 million on the current mail-in effort, which will include sending a ballot to every registered voter ahead of the general election.
Another strong showing at the polls come November would further embolden supporters of mail-in elections. Breaking another record, however, may take some work: Vermont's highest-ever general election turnout was 326,822, in 2008. That's nearly double this year's primary vote turnout.
Still, with a heated presidential race — and a voting process that makes fulfilling one's civic duty as easy as writing a note to a friend — Markowitz is confident that it can be done.
"I think we’re going to break all the records," she said.
Correction, August 14, 2020: An earlier version of this story stated the wrong year for the highest-ever general election turnout.