State panel OKs $2 million for Town Meeting Day mail-in voting

Diane Blodgett opens mail-in ballot envelopes at a polling place at the Barre City Auditorium on Aug. 11. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Vermont lawmakers allocated $2 million Tuesday for a program that hasn’t yet been approved: mail-in Town Meeting Day voting.

The Joint Fiscal Committee voted unanimously to use some of the state’s remaining federal CARES Act money to help municipalities with postage and other expenses.  

Mail-in voting in the November general election cost about $1.5 million in postage alone, with 440,000 active voters, Secretary of State Jim Condos told the panel. That includes postage to send the ballots, and the prepaid postage for voters to return the ballots.

Condos expects it to cost municipalities, including cities and towns, sewer districts and school districts, at least that much.

“You have solid waste districts out there, water/sewer districts out there, school districts that cross town lines,” Condos said. “There are districts that include several towns. If those towns don’t align their votes together (on a ballot), we could fast use that money up and not have enough to cover postage.”

Vermont lawmakers are expected to pass legislation in coming days that will allow mail-in voting for Town Meeting Day on March 2, or postponement of voting, to mitigate the health risk associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. The Scott administration had proposed sending towns $1.5 million to help with expenses, a figure that the administration raised to $2 million at the Joint Fiscal Committee meeting after hearing from Condos.

Last year, Vermont temporarily expanded the statewide mail-in voting system for the November general election. The governor has said he supports the idea of voting by mail for Town Meeting Day as the pandemic continues.

Lawmakers expect to send the voting proposal to Scott’s desk within the first two weeks of the legislative session, which begins Wednesday. The measure would also give school officials the same flexibility for budget votes, which typically happen in person. 

“We were pleasantly surprised today that they actually changed the request from $1.5 million to $2 million,” said Karen Horn, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. It’s too early to know if $2 million will be enough, she said.

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“If we see what the mailing is around the March town meeting, we’ll have a much better idea,” she said. “We’re going to try to work with other groups to get as many items from different districts on the same ballot as possible. That’s definitely a cost-saving measure.”

Town Meeting Day voting is typically a very decentralized process, unlike the general election, which is handled by the Vermont Secretary of State. This year, Condos’ office is overseeing the administration of the extra money, but the process will continue to be run by individual municipalities.

Town officials regularly ask the Secretary of State’s Office for guidance before elections. Chris Winters, the deputy secretary of state, said the office is getting more calls than usual this year. He has encouraged towns to postpone in-person meetings until warm weather returns, but the office is not advocating that meetings go virtual.

“The difficult thing is both security and access,” he said. “How do you make sure anyone who is voting on Town Meeting Day is who they say they are, and a registered voter in the town?” 

He said virtual meetings aren’t an option for people who don’t have internet access, a computer or the ability to log on.

“We kind of discouraged that from the beginning,” he said. “I think you could still do a lot of the information meetings that way and perhaps provide a phone option for those folks, and maybe even limited in-person, but for voting, we really don’t think that’s advisable.”

The money for the towns comes from Vermont’s $1.25 billion share of money that Congress authorized last March for coronavirus relief to the states. By Tuesday, the state had spent all but $6 million of that federal money, said Adam Greshin, the state commissioner of finance and management.

Organizing individual elections will be a monumental task in coming weeks. The deadlines for candidate registrations and warning ballot questions are fast approaching with many in January.

Condos has already heard from one 40-town solid waste district in the Northeast Kingdom. 

“They said there’s no way they could align themselves with a vote of the towns because the towns are in different time frames,” he said. “We hope the Legislature and governor will encourage towns and school districts and other municipal districts to try to align their votes together, because this (money) won’t last long otherwise.”

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Anne Wallace Allen

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