Politics

House approves permanent vote-by-mail expansion for general elections

Stephanie Churchill using letter opener on ballot envelope
Stephanie Churchill, a justice of the peace in St. Johnsbury, opens advance ballot envelopes during a processing session on Oct. 22, twelve days prior to Election Day. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

The Vermont House on Tuesday approved legislation that would make universal mail-in voting a permanent feature of the state’s general elections. 

The bill, S.15, which passed in a vote of 119-30, would require local officials to mail ballots to all registered voters in the weeks leading up to November general elections. 

The bill, which first passed the Senate in March, was proposed after the state decided to automatically send voters ballots in the fall to prevent the spread of Covid-19 at the polls. That change led to historically high turnout in the November 2020 election when 75% of voters opted to vote by mail. 

“Immediately following the 2020 election, many Vermonters and my neighbors among them began to ask why don’t we mail ballots in every November election?” Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, the chair of the House Committee on Government Operations, said on the virtual House floor Tuesday.

Vermont’s vote-by-mail bill is poised to pass the Legislature at a time when other states such as Texas and Georgia have moved to impose new voting restrictions.

“While many states are backpedaling on the voter enfranchisement, convenience and safety measures they adopted during the pandemic, Vermont is moving forward,” Copeland Hanzas said. 

The 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.  

Less than 0.5% of ballots cast in last year’s general election — fewer than 1,500 — were found to be defective, according to the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office. But under current law, unlike some other states, voters have no way to correct their errors.  

“Many of us in this body heard from voters who found out that a simple mistake had caused their ballot not to be counted but were told there was no way for them to cure the defect,” said Rep. Mike McCarthy, D-St. Albans City. 

More than half of the Republicans in the Statehouse opposed the vote-by-mail measure. 

Some raised concerns about a provision that would permit individuals to collect and return other voters’ absentee ballots. Under the House bill, an individual could deliver up to 25 ballots to town clerks’ offices or secure ballot drop boxes on behalf of others. 

“No one other than a family member, a caretaker or an election official should be touching somebody else's ballot, especially not groups that their goal is to influence the election,” said Rep. James Gregoire, R-Fairfield, who ultimately supported the bill. 

Gregoire said there's nothing wrong with influencing elections through advertising, “but you shouldn't be going to people's houses and collecting ballots, and especially the more frail among us who are more susceptible to be guided by individuals.”

Rep. Brian Smith, R-Derby, argued that more testimony should have been taken from town clerks on the bill and that he couldn’t support it because he’s heard from a few clerks who are opposed.

Copeland Hanzas said lawmakers have spoken in committee and individually to a “representative sample” of clerks about their experiences with universal vote-by-mail.  

Rep. Casey Toof, R-St. Albans City, proposed an amendment that would expand the legislation, making it a requirement for municipalities to also mail out ballots ahead of local elections. His amendment would have applied only to towns that conduct elections via ballot, as opposed to public meetings.

“I appreciate the push for mail-in voting for the general election, but where we don't see the most turnout is in our local and school elections,” Toof said. 

His amendment failed in a vote of 32-115. Copeland Hanzas said the bill already gives towns authority to conduct local elections by mail if they opt to do so.

But she said lawmakers need more information about how broadly expanding vote-by-mail at the local level would impact town clerks’ offices and municipal costs before they make a decision on the matter.

Gov. Phil Scott has said he supports the vote-by-mail legislation but would like to see it expanded to other elections. 

The vote-by-mail bill is expected to pass on a second vote in the House on Wednesday before heading back to the Senate. 

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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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