Voters will be able to fix mail-in ballot mistakes under a new bill.
The Vermont Senate on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to making mail-in ballots a permanent fixture in the state.
The bill, S.15, would require town clerks to mail ballots to all active, registered voters ahead of general elections — the same way the state handled last year's presidential election. Voters could then mail their ballots, deliver them to the polls or vote in person.
The bill passed on a voice vote, with only three of 30 senators opposed: Sen. Brian Collamore (R-Rutland), Sen. Joshua Terenzini (R-Rutland) and Sen. Russ Ingalls (R-Essex-Orleans).
After passage, Gov. Phil Scott said at an unrelated press conference that he supports the bill, though he would prefer to see the mail-in provision expanded to cover all elections. Senators on Wednesday are expected to debate a proposal to do just that. They would then give final approval to the bill and send it to the House.
Presenting the bill on the floor, Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham) said mail-in voting increases participation without sacrificing security. She noted that 75 percent of more than 372,00 ballots cast last November were sent through the mail.
"Elections are the very cornerstone of our democracy," White said, "and the [basis] of the election is the individual's voice."
The bill would also grant voters a chance to fix "defective" ballots, or those that can’t be counted because they were returned incorrectly. About 1,500 ballots were not counted during last November's election because voters failed to follow the multistep process required to properly mark, sign, seal and return them.
Clerks would need to inform voters of problems with their ballots under the proposed law. Voters could then vote in-person at the clerk's office or at the polls on Election Day, or they could ask to have a new ballot mailed to them. Their vote would count as long as they returned the new ballot before the polls closed.
The bill also makes permanent several other election changes installed during the pandemic: It allows clerks to start processing absentee ballots up to 30 days ahead of Election Day; offers towns the option of outdoor or drive-thru polling places; and gives school districts and municipalities the option to mail out ballots during local elections. It also compels the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office to produce a report by early next year on how to improve access for non-English-speaking voters.
After the vote, Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) commended her colleagues for moving to further protect voter rights.
"Our action today stands in stark contrast to legislatures across the country who continue voter suppression efforts, targeting practices like mail-in voting that have correlated with higher turnout among people of color," she said. "The Vermont Senate recognizes that our democracy, and our state, are strengthened when we make elections more accessible to all."
Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, shared similar praise.
“Even as voting rights are being attacked and eroded in more than 40 states across the country, Vermont is moving in a different direction,” Burns said. “It’s critical in this moment that Vermonters unite to stand up for democracy and not retreat from successful policies that maximize voter participation.”