Vermont lawmakers expect to empower municipalities and school districts to hold mail-in Town Meeting Day elections in light of the coronavirus pandemic's continued surge.
A bill would offer flexibility ahead of Vermont's traditional March voting day, which packs residents in some towns into gymnasiums, auditoriums, and meeting houses to cast ballots on budgets and other local matters.
"Many eligible voters on Town Meeting Day will not be able or willing to vote in person or attend a traditional floor meeting," Vermont Administration Secretary Susanne Young and Secretary of State Jim Condos wrote in a joint memo last month asking for money to offset costs for municipalities. "We must ensure voters can safely and securely participate in all elections, not just the November election."
The legislature passed a temporary measure last year that allowed Condos to mail ballots to every registered, active voter ahead of the November general election. The process went off without a hitch, and many support making it permanent. But the provision did not carry over to this year's Town Meeting Day.
The new bill would allow interested municipalities and school districts to mail ballots to all active voters. It would also let them delay their votes until later in the spring, when it might be safer to hold some form of in-person meetings.
Lawmakers have little time to debate the proposal. Though Town Meeting Day is not until March 2, several key deadlines are approaching: Public warnings must be filed by the end of this month, for example, while ballots must be finalized by February 10, according to Condos.
"[Municipalities] need to know fast," Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee, told Seven Days on Tuesday. Any voting-related bill must pass through her committee.
White expected the bill would be introduced shortly after the 2021 session begins Wednesday and said it should take only a couple weeks to reach Gov. Phil Scott's desk, where it is unlikely to meet much resistance — at least in its current form. Scott has said he believes municipalities should have the power to mail Town Meeting Day ballots this year.
Municipalities that choose to do so will receive financial help from the state. A panel of lawmakers known as the Joint Fiscal Committee agreed Tuesday to spend up to $2 million of Vermont's remaining share of federal CARES Act funds to reimburse municipalities for costs related to mailing out municipal or school budget ballots.
It's unclear whether that will be enough to cover all the associated costs: The state spent about $1.5 million on postage to send ballots to the roughly 440,000 active voters last fall, Condos told lawmakers Tuesday.
He said it would cost at least that much, and likely more, for Town Meeting Day given the logistical challenges. “You have solid waste districts out there, water/sewer districts out there, school districts that cross town lines,” he said. “There are districts that include several towns. If those towns don’t align their votes together, we could fast use that money up and not have enough to cover postage.”
That complicated landscape was why outgoing Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Burlington) said the state should be working on a uniform set of guidelines for how municipalities should hold Town Meeting Day votes.
"There are some things during the global health crisis that probably shouldn't be left to individual selectboards to decide, especially when people want to hold some of these customs even in the face of what might be insurmountable odds," Ashe said at Tuesday's meeting.
But Condos said unlike primary and general elections, which his office oversees, Town Meeting Day votes are instead run at the local level, and so discussions about universally mandated changes would need to involve many other parties, including the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.
"That's not a decision that I would want to make," Condos said.
White, the Gov Ops chair, agreed. "The towns know their towns best," she said. "I don't want to pretend that we know better what’s going to suit every town."
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.