Politics

A technocrat, an activist and a lawmaker: Those are the choices for voters in Vermont’s Democratic primary for secretary of state

From left: John Odum, Sarah Copeland Hanzas and Chris Winters. VTDigger file photos

The Democratic nominee for secretary of state is basically guaranteed to favor progressive ballot-access measures and to prioritize keeping Vermont’s elections both trusted and secure.

But while core policy differences among the three candidates in the contested primary can feel few and far between, two of the candidates are nevertheless trying to distinguish themselves by suggesting a few new ideas. The other, meanwhile, is emphasizing his long tenure in the office, and promising Vermonters that, with him, they’ll be assured the same level of service that they’ve come to expect under Jim Condos, a popular incumbent.

The Democrats on the ballot are Sarah Copeland Hanzas, a veteran lawmaker from Bradford; Montpelier City Clerk John Odum; and Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters.

The Secretary of State’s Office is best known for administering elections. But it also includes the state archives, the regulatory office for about 50 licensed occupations and business registration services.

The candidates generally agree on many key hot-button matters. All, for example, back ranked choice voting, believe noncitizens and 16- and 17-year-olds should be able to vote in local elections, and say that the state’s ethics commission should have enforcement and investigatory powers. 

All three have also had a hand in some of Vermont’s landmark efforts to expand access to the ballot. 

Copeland Hanzas last year was a key player in negotiating the passage of vote-by-mail legislation for general elections. Odum was a forceful advocate of Vermont’s same-day voter registration law while serving as Montpelier’s clerk, and he spearheaded a charter change in the capital city allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections. (Winooski has since followed suit.) As Condos’ right-hand man, Winters helped to implement both mail-in voting and same-day registration.

Still, although they share a similar set of basic values, the three Democrats have sought to distinguish themselves by emphasizing their backgrounds and priorities. 

Odum has touted his expertise in information technology and released a plan to improve cybersecurity in Vermont elections.

“Vermont has done great under the regular paradigm, but circumstances are changing, and we need to change that paradigm and take it up a few notches,” said Odum, a certified ethical hacker who has probed for election vulnerabilities at hacker conferences.

Odum, a former left-wing blogger and former Vermont Democratic Party staffer, has also argued the office could take a more activist approach — for example, by encouraging municipalities to try out noncitizen voting, or using the Office of Professional Regulation to offer anti-racist training and incentivize businesses to make pledges on climate change and equal pay.

Copeland Hanzas, a former cafe owner, has promised to take a “customer service” approach. She’s pitched a voter guide and a user-friendly directory of licensed professionals, and said she’d reinstate a committee of town clerks to advise the Secretary of State’s office, to make sure the team remains responsive to municipalities both big and small.

And she argues her nearly 20 years in elected office had obliged her to continually “get out and ask people what's working and what's not working and how can we do things better.” 

“My customer-service focus will be very well tuned, because (that’s) something that I'm used to doing and will continue to do,” she said. 

Her time in the Legislature has also included four years as chair of the House Government Operations Committee, which has jurisdiction over many of the same state functions overseen by the Secretary of State’s Office, including public records laws, elections and governmental ethics. In that role, Copeland Hanzas this year oversaw the decennial redistricting process by which lawmakers redraw Vermont’s legislative map based on the latest Census data. 

Winters has touted his 25 years of experience working in the Secretary of State’s Office and characterized himself as the natural successor to Condos, who endorsed Winters earlier this month. (Condos’ support, while not initially formalized via endorsement, was public from the start.)

“I think it's easy sometimes to come from the outside and have some really big — and good — ideas about where the office could go. But oftentimes, those ideas are not grounded in the actual work and might be a little bit astray from the mission of the office,” Winters said. 

Asked how he’d differentiate himself from Condos, he said the office should put a renewed focus on civics education and outreach, a priority he shares with Copeland Hanzas. In that vein, Winters often mentions his work with the Center for Cartoon Studies, which is collaborating with the Secretary of State’s Office on a comic book about civics.

Condos has never before endorsed a candidate during his 12-year tenure as secretary of state, preferring to stay neutral. But his influence has loomed large in this race. 

Winters announced his run just two days after Condos made his retirement plans public, and Winters acknowledged he had some advance notice of the secretary’s intentions to retire. Observers had noted for months prior that Winters had been taking a more public-facing role in the office, and when he announced his candidacy, his press release came with a glowing quote from Condos. 

Neither brought it up themselves, but, prompted by a reporter, both Odum and Copeland Hanzas said they weren’t particularly comfortable with Condos’ decision to weigh in.

“I'm in a similar position as city clerk, and I've been sorely tempted at times to make endorsements myself — including during this election cycle — but I have studiously avoided it because I do think it's inappropriate,” Odum said, adding that it wasn’t a matter he was inclined to “rattle cages about.” 

Copeland Hanzas said much the same, although she prefaced her response by saying that she had “always respected Jim.”

“I know that he has always had strong opinions about different issues or different candidates. And I have always respected that he felt it was important as the head of elections as the statewide elections administrator to stay neutral. And I'm disappointed that he chose this moment not to stay neutral,” she said.

Secretary of State Jim Condos defended his decision to endorse his deputy after 12 years of not endorsing any candidate. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Condos forcefully defended his decision to endorse Winters in an interview with VTDigger, beginning the exchange by asking if Copeland Hanzas, who he said had recently raised the issue with him, had “leaned on” the outlet to pursue such a line of questioning. (She had not.)

And he argued that, while he had never previously endorsed a candidate before while serving as secretary of state, nothing prohibited him from doing so.

“I get a little frustrated when I hear people say, ‘Well, that's the rule or that's the tradition.’ No, it's not. It's just what I had done for the last 12 years,” he said.

Condos argued that policy differences he’d noticed between the candidates were so stark that he felt compelled to step in. Condos dismissed a cybersecurity idea pitched by Odum that the state provide town and city clerks with dedicated computers and a network to be used solely for election work as one that would “probably cost tens of millions of dollars.” (Odum disputes this estimate, and thinks the project could be done for well under a million.)

“Where's that going to come from? I just don't think he understood the cost implications,” Condos said. Similarly, he panned Copeland Hanzas’ idea of providing an easily searchable database of licensed professionals to help members of the public find local businesses. The role of the Office of Professional Regulation is “to protect the public, not promote professions,” he said.

He also expressed alarm at comments Copeland Hanzas and Odum made last month during a VTDigger debate in response to a question about whether Vermont should update its public records law to make more records available to the public. The lawmaker had answered that she wasn’t sure anything in the law needed to change and expressed concern about the burden placed on staff by records requests. The clerk had suggested the law could, indeed, use some reform, but also noted the law was occasionally weaponized by bad-faith actors.

Condos has made a name for himself as a public transparency crusader, and he suggested those answers were simply unacceptable.

“Those are some of the things that I looked at and I thought, Jesus, you know, I really need to step up on this one,” he said.

Winters and Copeland Hanzas are increasingly seen as the front-runners in the race. Both have raised sizable amounts of cash and snapped up big-name endorsements. In addition to Condos, Winters has former Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, former Lt. Gov. Doug Racine, the Vermont State Employees’ Association and 40 current and former state lawmakers in his corner. Those backing Copeland Hanzas include former Gov. Madeleine Kunin, former Secretary of State Don Hooper and about half of the Vermont House’s Democratic caucus.  

Winters, who was first to declare his candidacy in February, had raised $61,018 through July 1, per filings submitted to the Secretary of State. Copeland Hanzas, who entered the race last — in late April — has taken in $39,111 thus far. Odum, who filed his campaign finance disclosure two days after the deadline, is a distant third, having taken in $16,318. His campaign website does not list endorsements.

Neither the Republican nor Progressive primaries are contested. Robert Millar is on the ballot for Progressives; H. Brooke Paige, a perennial candidate, is on the ballot for Republicans.

Clarifications: This story was updated to more accurately characterize Chris Winters' legislative endorsements and John Odum's cybersecurity proposal.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is a political reporter for VTDigger, covering Vermont state government, the congressional delegation and elections. She previously covered education for Digger, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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