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The evolution of early voting in Vermont

A blue and white envelope containing a vote by mail ballot.
Bill Oxford
Early voting for Vermont’s Aug. 9 primary election is underway. Vermont Public's senior political correspondent Bob Kinzel explains how this system developed in Vermont and some of the potential impacts that early voting might have on political campaigns.

Early voting for Vermont’s Aug. 9 primary election is underway.

Vermont law allows voters to cast their ballots within 45 days of the election. Voters are encouraged to contact their town clerk’s office to request a primary ballot if they want to use this option. The ballots can then be mailed back or dropped off in person at the clerk’s office.

How did this system develop in Vermont, and what are some of the potential impacts that early voting might have on political campaigns ?

Vermont Public's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with senior political correspondent Bob Kinzel about the evolution of early voting in Vermont. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: So this whole concept of allowing people to vote before Election Day has evolved over the years in quite interesting ways. It used to be fairly hard for a voter to get what's known as an absentee ballot, for example — now just a phone call away. And up to six weeks before the election, you can get that absentee ballot. So how did this happen?

Bob Kinzel: Mitch, it really is a remarkable change. Mail-in ballots were actually used during the Civil War for the Union soldiers in the field. It's generally felt that these ballots played an important role in the re-election of Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 election. And then mail-in ballots were used in Vermont starting in 1919, on a very limited basis. But to get an absentee ballot, a voter had to have a specific reason to get one—things like: I'm going to be away on business; or I've got health issues and I can't get to my town clerk's. But then things really started to change in the early 1990s. And that's when Vermont eliminated the need to have a reason to get an absentee ballot.

Secretary of State Jim Condos told me that this turned out to be a very important change.

"So it was 1993 when that happened," he said. "And in 2002, we had newspapers reporting that early voting was on the rise because of that. So nine years later, there was clear evidence that early voting was increasing."

And Mitch, the use of early voting has been increasing ever since. And it was really huge two years ago in November of 2020 because of the pandemic, when a lot of voters decided to use that mail-in option.

Yeah, it was a remarkable year for many reasons. Vermont then had a system where a voter could request a ballot 30 days before an election. But then Bob, the timeframe got extended to 45 days. And that happened about a decade ago. So how did that change come about — getting those 15 extra days?

Mitch, it was almost by accident. In 2009, the federal government decided that states had to make ballots available for overseas and military voters 45 days before an election in order to ensure that the ballots could be returned in time to be counted. Thirty days was no longer enough time for these specific voters. That was the federal mandate, as Secretary Condos explains. Vermont lawmakers then decided to make ballots available to all voters in the state 45 days before an election.

"Vermont undertook the capability that if it was good enough for our overseas and military voters then it was good enough for Vermonters, and they expanded early voting to 45 days for all voters," he said. "It really came down to a fairness issue."

So Mitch, all states have a 45-day window for overseas and military voters. But there are very few like Vermont that have 45 days for all voters.

Okay, Bob. Well, this brings us to a really important distinction here because in the general election this November, all Vermont voters will receive a ballot in the mail automatically. Those will be sent out for the general election in November. But it's important to point out this is not the case for the Aug. 9 primary. Voters will have to request an early ballot for the primary election. And I'm wondering if Secretary of State Jim Condos has any concerns about voter fraud using this system?

You know, Mitch, he really doesn't. He notes that Vermont is part of a group of 31 states that share both voter and motor-vehicle information. So he feels they would discover if someone tried to vote more than once. And, he says his office conducts audits after every election. No voter fraud has ever been found. And he told me that he has a lot of confidence in the security of Vermont's election system.

"Absolutely," he said. "For probably the last eight, nine years, we've been improving our voter checklist on literally a daily basis. And today it is by far the most accurate that we've ever had, and it continues to get stronger as we go."

And Mitch, one reason why Condos has that confidence in the security is that Vermont requires paper ballots. So it's much easier to conduct actual re-counts. And that local officials don't have to rely on the original data from electronic voting machines; they are able to count the official paper ballot every time.

Let's talk a little bit about how this is all affecting the candidates who are actually running because, you know, old-school political campaigns would make a big push to turn out voters on Election Day itself. And you still hear this, you know — get out and vote on Election Day. But now political campaigns have to encourage their supporters to vote over a six-and-a-half week period because of the early voting. How does this affect the campaigns?

I don't think there's any question that early voting and voting by mail has had a big impact on some of the operations of political campaigns. And I had a chance recently to talk with Linda Fowler, who is a professor of government, emerita at Dartmouth College, about this very issue. First of all, Professor Fowler says that at a time when many people have a lot going on in their lives, early voting is essential to ensure that everybody has an opportunity to cast a ballot.

"Either because of their age, their physical condition, their work, the flexibility of their work schedule, whether they can get a babysitter, or whether they're going to be out of town. Whether the lines at their polling places are very long and discourage them from voting, a whole host of things," she said. "So, mail-in voting just means people don't have to think about those variables and how they're going to actually make it happen."

Now, that being said, Professor Fowler does see some important impacts. Early voting means campaigns have to get organized sooner. This means they have to raise money earlier. She says this can be very tough on challengers who are not very well-known. And because of this situation, challengers can have a harder time initially getting their message out to voters.

"I worry about challengers who are not well-known and not well-funded," she said. "And if voters are deciding early, they may not have heard very much from an unknown challenger, or a challenger who sort of takes off towards the end of the campaign. And so that will benefit incumbents."

And Professor Fowler thinks early voting could affect the allocation of resources by campaigns in the final weeks, like you were talking about Mitch.

And Bob, does Professor Fowler think there could be some additional potential impacts of these campaigns?

She does Mitch. She thinks it could reduce the impact of last-minute controversies that often seem to arise in campaigns, the so-called "October surprises."

"I think what it means is that it it diminishes the impact of sort of 'October surprises' and late-breaking events that, you know, generate a short frenzy in the media but aren't really very important to the performance of the candidate," she said.

And Mitch, I think campaigns are still learning how early voting and mail-in voting affects their strategies. And the ones that figure this out soon could have a big advantage.

So many changes. And I'm wondering too, about voting laws and technology and how technology has evolved over the years. I mean, are there any new voting possibilities on the horizon?

Mitch, there's a big one: internet voting. You know, there are some people who feel that steps can be put into place to protect the integrity of the voting system from fraud and allow internet voting, but Secretary Condos is not one of them.

"Technology changes so fast," he said. "But I will tell you that most of the experts think that we're not ready for internet voting."

And a reminder that early voting has started for Vermont's Aug. 9 primary election. Contact your town clerk if you are interested in using that early voting option for the primary.

Have questions, comments, or concerns? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
Karen is Vermont Public's Director of Radio Programming, serving Vermonters by overseeing the sound of Vermont Public's radio broadcast service. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She has produced many projects for broadcast over the years, including the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke, and interviews with local newsmakers with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb. In 2021 Karen worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
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