Progressive groups are calling on Gov. Phil Scott to immediately approve a plan to expand mail-in voting for the general election in November — a proposal he has been reluctant to back.
Secretary of State Jim Condos has advocated for moving ahead with a universal mail-in ballot system as soon as possible to keep crowds from forming at polling locations in November. But Scott has not signed off, saying he’d rather wait to decide until after the August primary.
Groups including the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, Justice for All, and Rights & Democracy urged the governor at a press event held remotely Friday to approve Condos’ proposal, which they say is key to ensuring that Vermonters can cast a ballot in November.
Former state representative Kiah Morris, the movement politics director for Rights & Democracy Vermont, said expanding the state’s mail-in voting system is a way to make sure that as many people as possible have the ability to cast a ballot who may not have the flexibility to go to the polls.
“That we’ll be able to have that access to mail by voting sends a very clear message about who counts and who does not count,” Morris said.
Scott was resistant to Condos’ proposal this week, citing concerns about making a decision about an election that is six months away and fearing that changing the voting format could confuse Vermonters.
Condos has said the governor must approve the plan in the coming days to give the Secretary of State’s Office enough time to set up the infrastructure needed to strengthen the early and absentee ballot apparatus.
Condos’ staff and the governor’s team have been in talks for the past three to four weeks around the proposal which would authorize the Secretary of State’s Office to send ballots to all active voters in Vermont. But it wasn’t until Saturday, May 2, that Condos and Scott spoke directly about expanding mail-in voting.
After VTDigger reported on Scott’s resistance to approving the secretary of state’s plan, the governor, who previously had said he didn’t want to discuss his concerns in public, expanded on his issues with the proposal on Wednesday. Scott said he is not opposed to moving toward a mail-in voting system for the general election, but that he would prefer not to make a decision now that will change how people vote in November.
Scott said he had asked Condos, a Democrat, if the state could set up the infrastructure for voting by mail, but not decide what to do until after the Aug. 11 primary election, preferring to preserve in-person voting if possible.
Paul Burns, VPIRG’s executive director, said Scott’s preference to wait is “utterly irresponsible” and said that it could potentially jeopardize public health “because you cannot run the most effective vote by mail program by waiting until late August to hit go.”
“What we’re talking about here is a way to keep people safe and strengthen our democracy,” said Burns. “I cannot imagine what the governor is dawdling over at this point, but it is bordering on reckless to fail to move forward, I think, immediately with this decision.”
Under emergency measures passed in March, the Secretary of State’s Office has the power to change election procedures during the pandemic — as long as the governor signs off. Scott said Monday that he “didn’t ask to be put in this position” between Condos and the election procedure changes.
Burns said the governor should step back.
“If he doesn’t want to be involved, I think I would strongly encourage him not to be involved, and to get out of the way,” Burns said on Friday. “That’s a simple solution to his dilemma.”
Mark Hughes, executive director of Justice for All Vermont, said Friday that the Covid-19 crisis has already created difficult situations for people throughout the state and that Scott is creating an unnecessary debate about voter access.
“Why Mr. Governor, do we have to have a conversation about voting today?” Hughes asked. “We don’t need to have this conversation today. Do your job, make it happen.”
Main Street Alliance, Disability Rights Vermont, the Vermont Youth Lobby and the American Civil Liberties Union Vermont also joined the call for the governor to back Condos’ proposal.
Earlier this week, the Vermont Democratic Party and gubernatorial candidates chided the governor for potentially putting voters’ health at risk and obstructing Condos’ proposal.
Former Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, immediately released a statement calling on Scott to “not stand in the way of free, fair, and accessible elections.”
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democrat running for governor, quickly followed with an email to supporters asking them to sign a petition demanding the governor support the secretary of state’s plan.
On Wednesday, the Vermont Democratic Party announced it was beginning a five-figure digital ad campaign highlighting Scott’s resistance to the vote-by-mail expansion.
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Clarification: This story was updated to clarify that Holcombe and Zuckerman are running for governor.