Politics

Scott signs bill expanding vote-by-mail in general elections

Voted ballot envelopes
Advance ballots are pictured in St. Johnsbury on Oct. 22. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Universal mail-in voting is now a permanent feature of Vermont’s general elections, under legislation that Gov. Phil Scott signed Monday. 

Now, local officials will be required to mail ballots to all registered voters in the weeks leading up to the November general elections, as they did in fall 2020. 

The state decided to automatically send ballots to voters before last year’s election to prevent the spread of Covid-19 at the polls. But after the change helped drive record voter turnout in November, lawmakers moved to make it permanent. 

While announcing he had signed the legislation, S.15, Monday afternoon, Scott said he would like to see the policy expanded to local elections, party primaries and school budget votes. 

“I’m signing this bill because I believe making sure voting is easy and accessible, and increasing voter participation is important,” Scott said in a statement. “Having said that, we should not limit this expansion of access to general elections alone, which already have the highest voter turnout.”

Scott is asking lawmakers to make those changes next year.

While Vermont is moving to expand voting access, many other states have enacted new voting restrictions. In 2021 so far, more than a dozen states passed new voting laws with “restrictive language,” according to The Washington Post.  

Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, who pushed for the new law, said S.15 “represents the largest expansion of Vermont voter access in decades,” and it stands in contrast to legislation being passed in other states.

“Around the country, we are witnessing an assault on voting rights, as state legislatures use conspiracies and lies as cover to restrict the constitutionally guaranteed rights of American voters,” Condos said. 

“Here in the Green Mountain State, we chose a different path,” he said.

While the new voting law doesn’t require towns to mail out ballots ahead of local elections, it does give municipalities and school boards permanent flexibility to use vote-by-mail, if they choose.

Like Scott, some other Republicans had asked to expand the vote-by-mail policy to primaries and local elections, but Democrats were reluctant to do so. Lawmakers said they need more information about how expanding vote-by-mail at the local level would affect town clerks’ offices and municipal costs before they make a decision. 

However, the new law will ask the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office to complete a report by January 2023 on whether to expand the new policy to primaries and municipal elections. 

The new law also gives voters an opportunity to fix their mail-in ballots if they’re “defective,” meaning they cannot 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. However, until S.15 became law, voters had no way to correct ballot errors. 

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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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