The Vermont Senate on Tuesday advanced legislation that would give Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos the unilateral authority to expand mail-in voting during the Covid-19 pandemic, after he and Gov. Phil Scott have struggled to reach an agreement on the policy.
The legislation, which advanced in a vote of 21-7, removes a requirement for the governor to sign off on emergency elections changes during the pandemic.
The bill is expected to pass on a second vote Wednesday and then heads to the House where Democratic leaders have signaled support.
The vote fell mostly along party lines. Democrats argued that establishing a universal vote-by-mail system is important to protect the health of voters and poll workers in November.
Republicans said the expansion is unnecessary and opens up avenues for voter fraud.
The vote came after a disagreement between Condos and Scott that has taken on partisan overtones.
Scott, a Republican, doesn’t oppose the vote-by-mail expansion, but has been reluctant to sign off on it right away. He has wanted an independent committee to decide after the August primary whether the universal vote by mail expansion.
Condos, a Democrat, and Democratic leaders in the Vermont Legislature, have wanted to swifty move forward with a plan to send every registered voter in the state a returnable ballot in November.
On Nov. 3, Vermonters will vote for U.S. president, as well as governor and other statewide offices, and state legislators.
Under Condos’ plan, voters would not be required to vote by mail and could still vote at the polls. But all registered voters would have the option to vote by mail, and receive returnable ballots without having to request them.
Sen. President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P Chittenden, said that the measure would make sure Vermonters have a way to vote safely, even if the state sees another Covid-19 outbreak in the fall.
“If we follow the typical procedures and then there is another outbreak in early October, mid October, late October or even in the couple of days before the November election, there will be no way for us to really ensure that everybody has a safe way to cast a vote,” Ashe said.
Scott has said that he wouldn’t stand in the way if lawmakers decided to take away his authority over the upcoming elections.
But Republicans on Tuesday expressed concerns that voter checklists are often inaccurate, and contain names and addresses of many voters who have died or moved.
Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said that he didn’t think that expanding the vote-by-mail system would lead to widespread fraud, but that he felt that it was unnecessary, given that voters can already request mail-in ballots under current law.
“I hope there is no fraud, but I have a real problem with developing a new system at a time when we already have a system in place that does exactly what all of us want to see happen,” Benning said.
He said that expansion proposed by Democrats will “let loose potentially 300,000 to 500,000 live ballots and expect it all to work perfectly.”
“It will assume every single person approaching the ballot, signing the ballot, carrying the ballot to the mailbox, is not going to perform some nefarious activity which would actually have an impact on the sanctity of our system,” Benning said.
Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, pointed to an analysis he published in 2014 that found that “several thousand” Vermonters who died between 2009 and 2011 were still on the voter checklist. He said that in recent days he’s found other names of deceased Vermonters who are still on the list.
Brock said he favors the current system, over automatically sending ballots out to people on a checklist that is “very flawed in many ways.”
“When a person makes a call to the town clerk and asks for a ballot to be sent, that ballot is sent and then recorded and sent back with a signature on the outside of the envelope,” Brock said.
“That gives me much more comfort than willy nilly sending out half a million ballots, expecting that we’re going to maintain the integrity.”
Democrats argued that expanding the mail-in voting system gives municipalities an opportunity to “clean up” their voter checklists.
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, the chair of the Government Operations Committee, said that voters will be receiving mailings from the Secretary of State’s Office ahead of the August primary reminding them that they can request absentee ballots.
If these mailings are redirected, or undeliverable, town clerks will be notified.
White also pointed out that the five states that conduct elections entirely by mail (Hawaii, Colorado, Utah, Washington and Oregon) don’t have problems with fraud, and have only seen an increase in voter participation. And she said that Vermont doesn’t have examples of voter fraud either.
Others noted that the mail-in ballot expansion doesn’t change the potential for fraud that already exists.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about the various tortured scenarios where people could cast fraudulent votes,” said Sen. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden.
“But anybody who’s ever gotten a postcard from a campaign sent to their home under the wrong address knows full well that they could request an absentee ballot and fraudulently send that in today.”
“So I don’t think we’re really changing those dynamics, in fact we’re taking many steps to better protect the process with the cleanup process in August,” Pearson added.
Sen. Debbie Ingram, D-Chittenden, said that the measure would increase voter participation.
“We’re focusing on the wrong thing here. We should be more concerned that our turnout is only 60 or 65%,” she said.
“I think we should do all that we can to improve voter turnout, and this is certainly a system that will do that.”
One Democrat, Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex-Orleans, joined the six Senate Republicans in the Senate who voted against the measure.
“I just think that we’re overreacting, and making it very complicated for our citizens to feel secure that their votes (are) going to be delivered in the right place,” Starr said.
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