While many Vermont Republicans expressed concern last spring about expanding the state’s vote-by-mail system for the general election, politicians and political operatives are now crediting the widespread use of absentee ballots for the GOP’s modest gains in the Statehouse.
Ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election, many pollsters predicted that Democrats across the country would perform exceedingly well up and down the ballot. The rationale was that, during a global pandemic, more people than usual would be voting by mail and that Democratic voters were more likely to request ballots.
But when the results began to come in, it became clear that mail-in voting had not given Democratic candidates a meaningful leg up on their Republican counterparts.
The national trend matches the data in Vermont, and points to an explanation that, while mail-in voting drastically increased voter turnout, it did not result in a major swing to Democratic candidates. Rather, it simply amplified how parts of the state lean politically.
“What we saw this year was by and large a status quo election,” said Spencer Dole, who heads the House campaigns for the Vermont Democratic Party.
“By mailing everybody a ballot, we saw more Democratic voter turnout in districts that lean Democratic, and Republicans turned out to vote in higher numbers in more Republican areas of the state,” he said.
Throughout the U.S. and in Vermont, the data suggests that, while voters wanted to see change in the presidential race, for the most part incumbents carried the day in the overwhelming majority of down-ballot contests in Vermont, Dole said.
Vermont had a record turnout, with more than 370,000 people casting ballots — significantly higher than the 326,000 who went to the polls for the 2008 general election and set the prior turnout record.
While Vermont Democrats still have a vice-like grip on the Legislature, with 92 members in the 150-member House of Representatives, the state GOP is celebrating a three seat pickup in House, knocking off House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, and the leader of the Progressive caucus, Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, P/D-Middletown Springs.
How Republicans took three House seats away from Democrats is less clear.
Deb Billado, chair of the Vermont Republican Party, believes her party’s candidates were simply better than their Democratic counterparts and the result has nothing to do with the increase in ballots from mail-in voting.
“I analyzed the candidates — they’re very, very strong, they worked really hard and I think that was the difference,” Billado said. “I don’t think the mail-in ballot process enhanced either party’s opportunities.” With high turnout, she said, both Democrats and Republicans received high vote totals.
Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College, is reluctant to draw concrete conclusions on whether mail-in voting helped either party, and the significance of the meager three House seats picked up by Republicans is that Johnson and Chesnut-Tangerman lost.
“The swing of the three is getting more attention because it includes the defeat of the speaker and the defeat of the Progressive leader,” Davis said. “But I would not say there was any strong partisan effect one way or the other.”
Paul Dame, who runs campaign operations for the House Republicans, said many factors went into the election results, but the popularity of Gov. Phil Scott is the biggest reason for down-ticket Republican success.
“There were a lot of structural things in this election that should have given Democrats an advantage, and we overcame that and we picked up seats in the House and the Senate, in a presidential year, for the first time in 20 years,” Dame said.
Dame says mail-in voting potentially helped turn out Republican voters on par with Democratic voters across the state, though he believes it’s likely that more Democrats sent in ballots early.
“The fact that Republicans got their ballot early, it kind of served as a reminder to go vote. Even if they didn’t mail it in early, it was that constant reminder,” Dame said.
The Republican strategist added that President Trump’s presence at the top of the ticket also appeared to be a factor.
The outgoing president did better in many towns than he had in 2016, collecting 112,700 Vermonters — more than Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, the Democratic nominee for governor.
“That is a reflection of how strong Phil Scott is, not of Trump or Zuckerman,” Davis said.
For Dole and Democrats, the number 112,700 potentially marks the true Republican voting base in Vermont, and will be used as a data point for coming elections.
“If you look at all the districts in which Democrats suffered losses in the House, all of them President Donald Trump either won or strongly outperformed his numbers in 2016,” Dole said. “There are more Trump-supporting Republicans in those districts who were brought out to vote because of the fact that we mailed everybody a ballot this year.”
Johnson echoed Dole’s claim in remarks about her 18-vote loss to a Republican challenger.
“The voter turnout amplified the existing dynamics,” she said. “The towns that were already conservative-leaning got more conservative and the towns that were already Democratic-leaning got more Democratic.
“The way that balances out in this community was not in my favor,” Johnson said, as the majority of towns in her House district gave Trump more votes than he got in 2016.
Secretary of State Jim Condos, a Democrat who orchestrated the Covid-19 drive to send a ballot to every active voter, said his goal is to make sure as many people as possible have the ability to vote.
“My job is to get more voters out,” he said. “It is not to get more Democrats, more Progressives or more Republicans.”
Getting a ballot to every voter did not directly benefit any specific political party, Condos said.
“If anything, I think there are some folks up in the Northeast Kingdom that it benefited, the Republicans,” he said. “If you look at Burlington, it probably benefited Progressives and Democrats.”
Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, believes that was the case in his own race. He earned one of his highest vote totals, at 10,057, coming very close to Democratic Sen. Jane Kitchel’s 10,285.
“You heard a lot of noise, especially on the national level, from Republicans that a mail-in ballot system would create fraud,” Benning said. “And it would weigh to the Democrats’ benefit. Even though Republicans were opposed to the concept, it was going to benefit, especially in my district, the Republicans, not the Democrats.”
Xander Landen and Colin Meyn contributed reporting.
Missing out on the latest scoop? Sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on politics. And in case you can't get enough of the Statehouse, sign up for Final Reading for a rundown on the day's news in the Legislature.