Politics

Democratic candidates for Vermont secretary of state debate the details of good governance

The three Democrats in the primary for Vermont secretary of state brought perspectives from three separate sectors of government to the first media-sponsored debate of the race Tuesday night, while ultimately sharing similar political values on issues ranging from voting access to public records.

But during the cordial dialogue between Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters and Montpelier City Clerk John Odum — who have worked with each other previously on election laws and implementation — they found room to debate the details of public records law and the role of occupational licensing. 

And as longtime Montpelier insiders who have worked closely with the Secretary of State’s Office, they noted specific challenges they saw to implementing major reforms — even those they supported, such as ranked choice voting. 

Copeland Hanzas chairs the House Government Operations Committee, which handles bills related to elections and government transparency. Winters has spent 25 years in the office, and spent the last seven as deputy. Odum has held his post for the past decade and spearheaded non-citizen voting, which is now law in Montpelier and Winooski. 

The Democratic hopefuls are running for the chance to replace Secretary of State Jim Condos, who is retiring after more than a decade in office.

The online forum was hosted by VTDigger.

The Vermont Secretary of State’s Office has a sprawling range of responsibilities — occupational licensing, public records, campaign finance, elections and voting — that encompass issues of good governance and transparency that are now hot-button topics across the country. 

Odum pitched himself as an outsider with cybersecurity experience who could come into the office to “shake things up,” and use the office in a more activist role. By comparison, Winters and Copeland Hanzas touted their experience in state government. 

Winters said he was running because “Vermont needs stability and continuity in the Secretary of State's Office.” 

“I want to take the skills and passion that I have demonstrated over the 18 years that I've been in the House, and take those to work to defend democracy in Vermont,” Copeland Hanzas said. 

Elections and voting

Lawmakers made universal mail-in voting a permanent feature of Vermont’s general elections last year, after the initial rollout in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Asked if they supported expanding the measure to include primary and local elections, the candidates found some room to distinguish themselves.

Winters hedged, and said that his office was studying the subject to produce a report for the Legislature. 

“There are a lot of pluses and a lot of minuses,” he said. 

Odum supported universal vote-by-mail for all elections, and said he believed primary voting should be simplified. 

Copeland Hanzas said universal mail-in voting was “a conversation that is really important to have with Vermonters,” but seemed inclined to keep the current system, at least for local elections.

Universal mail-in ballots would “mean the end of Town Meeting as we know it,” Copeland Hanzas said. “And Town Meeting is a wonderful experience for those who are fortunate enough to be able to participate in it in their small communities.”

On ranked choice voting, all three candidates voiced their support — while sometimes, again, acknowledging the challenges to implementation. 

Under a ranked choice system, voters can cast ballots for multiple candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins a decisive majority vote (more than 50%), the candidate with the least support is eliminated. Anyone who voted for the eliminated candidate then has their second-choice candidate counted.

Supporters contend it makes running for office more accessible to candidates outside of the major party norms and helps to avoid “spoilers,” where support could be divided between several similarly-minded candidates.

“While the advocate in me has always been for ranked choice voting, the election administrator in me has great concerns,” Odum said. “As a clerk, I try to imagine doing a hand recount in a ranked choice voting election, but having said that, (the) problems are problems that can be solved.”

Copeland Hanzas said if she was elected, she would seek to establish ranked choice voting for presidential primaries in 2024. 

Each candidate had their own take on what they saw as the greatest threat facing Vermont elections. For Odum, it was “foreign mischief in our elections.” He proposed enhanced cybersecurity, and said he wants Vermont to move away from a private election contractor to an open-source election system. 

To Winters, the biggest threat was voters’ weakened trust in the election process. Copeland Hanzas said it was the tenor of political discourse. 

“I think it's time that we get back to the proverbial dinner table and learn how to talk to each other again,” she said. 

Transparency

There are more than 260 exemptions to Vermont’s Public Records Act that government agencies can use to keep records out of public view — and the secretary of state advises local and state officials to follow public records and open meeting laws. Each candidate was asked if they’d support reducing the exemptions to Vermont’s public records requirements. 

Winters said the exemptions “could be drastically reduced,” but added, “It’s going to take hard work.” 

Odum compared the public records rules to “a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster.” 

“I think it would probably be worthwhile to step back and look at it from the bottom up,” he said. 

Copeland Hanzas was more cautious. She applauded the Legislature’s adaptations to the Covid-19 pandemic — such as livestreaming on YouTube — which she said made the lawmaking process more transparent. And she said she believed increased transparency going forward will be from making more government processes accessible online. 

However, she expressed concerns that government staffers have limited resources to respond to extensive public records requests, draining time and money.

“I know how much time was taken up by members of the Legislative Council staff in order to fulfill public records requests that went beyond just being able to watch the YouTube conversation or see what the committee discussion was,” Copeland Hanzas said. 

In response to further questioning, Copeland Hanzas said she was “not sure” if some exemptions to the Public Records Act should be removed. 

“I think we need to make sure that the exemptions that exist are being applied equally across all branches and all levels of government,” she said. 

All three candidates said they would support the creation of a public records ombudsman, to ensure that state agencies comply with public records requests. 

The candidates also offered different stances on the Office of Professional Regulation, an arm of the secretary’s office that oversees occupational licensing. 

Copeland Hanzas proposed turning the secretary’s registry into a public-facing tool that Vermonters could search to find professionals in their area. 

Winters had a more conservative approach, and said that the office should go “only as far to protect the public as necessary and not an inch farther, so that you don't interfere with the marketplace.” 

Both Winters and Odum suggested the Office of Professional Regulation could be a tool for workforce development, but Odum described a more expansive vision for regulators. 

“When I talk about being a little more activist, a little more representing our values in the Secretary of State's Office, I'm mainly talking about (the Office of Professional Regulation),” Odum said. 

Cross examination

In addition to answering questions from VTDigger journalists and readers, the candidates also posed questions to each other — at times pointed ones in the generally amicable debate. 

Winters, up first, chose to query Copeland Hanzas. He asked, “What in your background has prepared you to manage an 80-person agency with a $17 million budget, four divisions, an investigative unit, a law enforcement agency and a broad array of responsibilities for services that are so critical to Vermont?” 

Copeland Hanzas cited her experience as a business owner, where she’s had to manage a budget and meet payroll. Copeland Hanzas owned The Local Buzz Cafe in Bradford until it closed last year. She also cited her work “in very complex and complicated legislative environments.” 

“I think overall the ability to manage people, the ability to be an open and accessible leader of an organization, is really what's critical to the success of that organization,” Copeland Hanzas said. 

Copeland Hanzas next directed her question to Odum. When she talks to Vermonters about her 18 years in elected office, she said, “they walk away excited to vote for a qualified woman for secretary of state. Do you think it's time to elect more women to statewide office?”

In response, Odum said he believed that Copeland Hanzas was “completely qualified,” and that the desire to vote a woman into office was legitimate. 

“I’m probably gonna vote for myself in this one,” Odum said, “but I would never try to dissuade somebody from approaching elections that way.”

Moderator Paul Heintz, managing editor at VTDigger, then posed the same question to Winters, who implied he would appoint a woman as his deputy. 

“I'm really looking forward to being able to choose my own deputy, as secretary of state, and I'm confident that she is going to be an amazing addition to the leadership team,” Winters said. 

In his second question, Winters turned to Copeland Hanzas again and asked, "Which of the divisions would you like to learn more about?"  

Copeland Hanzas responded that she’d hope to spend more time in the state archives.

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Riley Robinson

About Riley

Riley Robinson is a general assignment and multimedia reporter, covering stories across the state in writing, photos and video. She is a graduate of Northeastern University's School of Journalism and first joined the Digger newsroom as a Dow Jones News Fund intern.

Email: [email protected]

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