The Deeper Dig: Upcoming elections will test Vermont’s voting laws

Voters in Williston on Town Meeting Day 2018. Photo by Bob LoCicero/VTDigger

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[D]aniel Jones was 22 when he shot and killed a drug dealer in a Burlington alley in 2002. He was an addict, he says, and the killing was an accident.

Now 16 years into his 25-year sentence at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport, Jones is petitioning for an early release that could send him home as soon as next year. Meanwhile, he’s already cast his vote in Vermont’s 2018 primary election.

“I’m not one or the other — Republican or Democrat — but it seems that I lean more towards Republican,” he says. “I’m more on the side of building our economy.”

Vermont and Maine are the only two states that place no restrictions on convicted felons’ voting rights.

Jones first took advantage of those rights ten years ago, when he voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. He had already started to follow the senator’s campaign when a case worker let him know he was allowed to register. “I just felt some kind of passion about it.”

He says voting gives inmates motivation to be productive members of society.

“It’s a good spark for that,” he says. “It tears the wall down between society and people who have committed crimes.”

Preserving ballot access for felons is only one of Vermont’s moves towards getting and keeping more voters enrolled. The state is heading into the 2018 elections with some of the most expansive voting laws in the country.

“Vermont leads the way,” says Natalie Tennant, a former West Virginia secretary of state who’s now a voting rights expert at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Vermonters can register to vote at their polling places on election day, or they can sign up online. This year’s elections will also be the first since the state implemented automatic voter registration, which adds eligible voters to the rolls when they apply for ID cards at the DMV. (Applicants can choose to opt out.)

Natalie Tennant

Natalie Tennant is a voting rights expert at the Brennan Center for Justice. Courtesy photo

Vermont’s voting laws complement each other, Tennant says. For example, election-day registration opens access to any potential voters who didn’t recently interact with the DMV.

“There’s not one policy that’s going to break down all the barriers,” she says. “I look at Vermont as a great example of filling in all the cracks.”

Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos says automatic voter registration, or AVR, has already been a success.

New and updated registrations through the DMV increased by 62% in the first six months of 2017, compared to the first six months of 2016, before AVR was implemented. Condos says that’s a striking increase, especially considering that 2017 was not an election year.

But the 2018 elections, like most years without a presidential race, are projected to see low turnout. Will those new registrants vote?

“That’s what we don’t know,” Condos says. “My belief is that we should register every eligible American that we can. Then it’s up to them whether they go vote.”

Tennant says the results from Oregon, the first state to implement AVR, are encouraging. About 40% of the registrants from that state’s DMV-based system voted in the November 2016 election. Plus, she says, “the AVR voters were more likely than the traditional voters to be from rural areas, low-income, lower-educated areas” — demographics that are typically underrepresented at the polls.

Condos’s office won’t know how AVR affects voter turnout until after this year’s elections. Likewise, the overall effect of Vermont offering voting rights to felons, while meaningful to those who take advantage, is difficult to quantify.

Daniel Jones says that only a small percentage of his fellow inmates follow politics or exercise their right to vote.

Why? “I think they’re just defeated,” he says. “They haven’t been heard all their life...and pretty much say, What’s the point? No one cares what I think. I’m not going to make a difference.

Northern State Correctional Facility

Prisoners at the Northern State Correctional Facility, like all Vermont inmates, are allowed to vote in elections. Courtesy Vermont Department of Corrections

Jones hands out registration forms and ballots to try to encourage other inmates to get involved.

“You have a choice to make a difference, and prove them all wrong,” he tells others. “Instead of being angry or bitter about it, start doing something about it.”

Most states disenfranchise felons, with opponents arguing that people who have broken laws shouldn’t have a say in electing the officials who make them.

Jones believes that’s an unforgiving view. “Where’s the hope in that? When a child makes a mistake, a parent doesn’t shun them, cast them out, and completely take away their rights,” he says. “They forgive them, guide them — make them feel like they do belong, that they can do better.”

There are other ways states have made it more difficult for voters to cast ballots. Some secretaries of state and Republican members of Congress, buoyed by President Donald Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud, have pushed for enhanced restrictions like voter ID laws and purges of voter databases.

According to the Brennan Center’s State of Voting 2018 report, at least eight states have tightened their voting laws since the 2016 election cycle.

Condos has repeatedly pushed back on claims of widespread voter fraud. “The true voter fraud, in my opinion, is the denying of an eligible American the right to cast a ballot,” he says.

But he acknowledges that the process of fighting restrictive voting laws across the country will not likely be resolved anytime soon. “I think it’s a debate we’re going to continue to have.”

Tennant says there are signs that other states are moving in Vermont’s direction, including the fact that 20 are considering implementing automatic voter registration. “We look at that as a bright light among other forces” like voter suppression measures, she says.

Additionally, states like Florida are considering rolling back their felon disenfranchisement laws — a move Tennant says would benefit more than a million would-be voters.

Allowing incarcerated people to vote helps them "feel more as a whole person,” she says. “Everybody has one vote on Election Day. No matter how rich you are, no matter how smart you are, no matter your status in life — you all have that one vote.”


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Mike Dougherty

About Mike

Mike Dougherty is a senior editor at VTDigger leading the politics team. He is a DC-area native and studied journalism and music at New York University. Prior to joining VTDigger, Michael spent two years as a program coordinator for the Vermont Humanities Council. Before moving to Vermont in 2015, he spent seven years managing recording operations for the oral history nonprofit StoryCorps, assisted Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, and contributed to the Brooklyn-based alt-weekly L Magazine.

Email: mdougherty@vtdigger.org

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