Politics

Senate backs vote-by-mail expansion for general elections

Red billboard reading "have you mailed in your ballot?"
A sign on the green at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier reads, “Have you mailed in your ballot?” Designed by Mutale Nkonde, the sign is part of For Freedoms, a project to mark Indigenous People’s Day and promote civic engagement through artist-designed billboards installed across the U.S. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Legislation to make universal mail-in voting a permanent feature of the state’s general elections won the approval of the Vermont Senate on Tuesday.

The bill, S.15, would require local officials to mail ballots to all registered voters in the weeks leading up to future November elections. The push for the legislation comes after state officials moved to automatically send voters ballots last fall, to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 at the polls. The change led to historically high turnout in the November 2020 election. 

“When we make voting more accessible, more people vote. When we make voting more accessible, our democracy better represents the will of the people,” Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, said Tuesday on the virtual Senate floor. 

“And voting is one of the most sacred rights and responsibilities that we have,” she said. “We have to do all we can to ensure that all eligible voters can easily cast their votes, and have equal participation in the work of our state and our nation.”

The legislation was approved in a virtual voice vote Tuesday morning. A majority of senators supported the bill, and only a handful of legislators could be heard opposing it. A final vote is expected in the Senate on Wednesday before the bill moves to the House for consideration.

During a press conference Tuesday, Gov. Phil Scott said he supports the bill but would like to see it expanded even further.  

“My only concern is if we’re going to do it for the general election, I’m wondering why not the other elections that we have?” Scott said. “And if it works for the general election, it should work for some of the others. So I would only ask that it get expanded in some capacity.”

The Senate Government Operations Committee previously decided against expanding universal mail voting to primary elections, because primaries are how political party nominees are selected.

“It’s up to the parties to get their people out to vote [in primaries],” Sen. Jeanette White, who chairs the committee, said earlier this month.  

Though the legislation wouldn’t require towns to mail ballots for Town Meeting Day, it would give municipalities and school boards flexibility to use vote-by-mail in future local elections. 

The Senate bill would also give voters an opportunity to fix their mail-in ballots if they’re “defective,” meaning they can’t be counted because they were filled out or mailed back incorrectly. Local officials would need to contact voters if their ballots were faulty and give them the chance to fix the mistake.

“This may seem unnecessary, but it gives mail-in voters the same ability to correct the ballot as those who are voting in-person, because if you’re voting in person and you make a mistake, you can get a clean ballot and start over,” White said on the virtual Senate floor Tuesday.

In an interview last month, Sen. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland, a member of the government operations committee, said he didn’t support the legislation because the state’s election system  already allows Vermonters to request mail-in ballots ahead of elections.

“I think there’s a very positive social aspect to in-person voting, and quite frankly I see the absentee voting system that we have works very well, and I don’t feel that there’s a need to change that,” Collamore said at the time.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, proposed an amendment Tuesday to prohibit political candidates and their paid staffers from collecting and returning absentee ballots from voters during a general election. They would still be able to return their own ballots, or ballots belonging to immediate family members. 

Benning noted that the language in his amendment mirrored an election directive that the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office issued in 2020, placing the same restrictions on candidates and their staffers. 

“My intent here is quite simple: to make sure we are all giving the public the impression we are doing our level best to remain above any appearance of impropriety,” Benning said. 

“I am not suggesting by any stretch that any impropriety has occurred in the 2020 election, and I hope that we have that same situation going forward should this bill become law,” he said. 

The amendment passed on a vote of 28-2 but received some criticism. 

Sen. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden, who opposed the amendment, called it “deeply concerning and borderline offensive” and said it “impugns the integrity of candidates and their campaigns.”

Sen. Corey Parent, R-Franklin, had been planning to propose another amendment to S.15 that would have expanded the universal vote-by-mail system to all elections. 

But he has since decided to slim down the amendment to simply form a study committee to “evaluate how to expand Vermonters’ access to statewide and local elections,” and consider whether to extend vote-by-mail to the state’s primaries and Town Meeting Day. 

“At a time when Republicans nationally are limiting access to the ballot box, I’m a Republican here in Vermont trying to expand it beyond what the Legislature is looking to originally do,” Parent said. 

“I’m hoping that we get the support over the next day, day and a half, to keep this discussion going,” he said. 

The government operations committee opposed Parent’s amendment Tuesday on a 3-2 vote, and the Secretary of State’s Office also expressed disapproval of the measure.

“We don’t need a study committee of 13 people to figure out what the issues are here. We know what the issues are here; we can make some recommendations,” Vermont’s deputy secretary of state, Chris Winters, told the panel Tuesday afternoon. 

“But we really are cautious about adding a lot more to the elections division’s plate right now when we’ve got a real clean simple bill that we all decided, in the last couple of months, was the right way to proceed with the general election only at this time,” Winters said. 

The Senate plans to vote on Parent’s amendment on Wednesday, after which it expects to vote again on the underlying bill and send it to the House.

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.

Email: [email protected]

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