Vermont sees a record number of mail-in ballots for the 2022 midterm election
Town clerks across Vermont are reporting that they have received a record number of mail-in ballots for a non-presidential election.
It's estimated that as many as 50% of all votes cast for the midterm election will be done by mail this year.
So, what happens to these ballots when they're sent back to the clerk's office? What kind of security measures are put into place and is mail-in voting changing voter participation in state elections?
Vermont Public's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with senior political correspondent Bob Kinzel to find the answer to some of these questions. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: Under new state law, all registered voters in Vermont are sent a ballot for the November election roughly 45 days before, and that happened back in late September.
Voters can either mail in these ballots, drop them off at their local clerk's office or bring them to the polls on Election Day itself. It's a plan that was used during the COVID general election in 2020. And last session, lawmakers made it permanent. So tens of thousands of ballots have come back into town clerk's offices already over the last few weeks. Can you walk us through the process of what happens when a ballot is returned?
Absolutely Mitch, and I've always been fascinated by this — to know just what happens when the mail gets delivered every morning to a town clerk. Well, when it does get delivered, a very detailed process is followed. I talked with Montpelier City Clerk John Odum about this process. He says the very first thing that he does is to officially record that a ballot has been sent back by a specific individual.
"We receive them back," he said. "We check them off the checklist as having had a ballot received. And then we gotta run them through the machine. And we can only do that with poll workers who are certified. Everybody's sworn in or a Justice of the Peace, that kind of thing."
Under Vermont law, towns that use the so-called optical scanning machines are allowed to run these early ballots through the machines within 30 days of the election. And Montpelier was actually tabulating ballots while I was there. I did see a ballot that had the initial vote for one candidate that was boldly crossed out with this huge ‘X’ and then another circle was filled in. Now in these cases, the ballot is rejected by the machine and counted by hand.
Mitch, it's important to mention that there's no tabulation of the results of these early mail-in ballots. That will be done after the polls close at 7 p.m. on election night.
Now Bob, the smaller envelope that contains the ballot also has the voter’s name and signature on it. How do town clerks protect the information of how this person voted?
There's a very strict procedure that has to be followed. This is in state law. Barre City Clerk Carol Dawes says one election official opens that main big envelope and then passes the smaller certified envelope to another person. In that certified envelope is where the ballot is. That second person removes the ballot from the certified envelope and hands it to a third person. So then they have one stack of ballots that they have, and another stack of the certified envelopes. And they do this to keep them very separate. And Carol Dawes says it's a procedure that needs to be followed very closely.
Check out of all of Vermont Public's 2022 election coverage here.
“And this was a concern that the Legislature voiced a couple years ago, and they put this very rigorous process in place to do the best that we can to make sure that we're not putting a name with the way somebody voted,” she said.
All of the certified smaller envelopes are actually kept by the town clerks for several years to verify that a person has indeed voted.
What happens if a voter forgets to sign their ballot or leaves off some other important piece of information?
This is really interesting because before 2020, if this happened, the ballot was considered defective, not counted and thrown away. Then the Legislature passed a law that allows the local town clerk to contact the voter, and this gives the voter a chance to correct the problem. This is known as ‘curing a ballot,’ as Carol Dawes explains.
“If we have a phone number, if we have an email address, we can do it that way," she said. "Or we have a postcard that we send off that says, ‘Hey, you forgot to sign your ballot, you forgot to put it in the envelope,’ or whatever, there might be a reason for it to be defective — and you can fix it.”
So far this year, there have been very few cases where this procedure has been needed. And when it has been, over half of those cases have been successfully resolved, and the ballot has then been counted.
OK, well, across the country, we hear a lot of concern raised about potential voter fraud in some states. How do the clerks view the security level of Vermont’s system which requires paper ballots by law?
The use of paper ballots is very important to ensure the accuracy of the tabulator machines, and if a recount is needed. Montpelier City Clerk John Odom is known to be a national expert on computer fraud, and he told me he has great confidence in Vermont's election system.
“If there's a hole in the system that somehow gets exploited, and you start seeing that, I guarantee you clerks are going to be the first people to pop up and say, ‘Look, we've got a problem here. We need to change things or look at how we're doing things.’ But right now, it's working really well," he said.
The local tabulating systems are not connected to the internet, and therefore are not subject to possible hacking in that specific way.
I should also mention that election officials say it's too late right now to mail in a ballot because it might not get there in time, and therefore your vote would not be counted.
So, if people still have a ballot, they can drop it off at their local clerk's office, or they can bring it with them to their local polling place on Election Day. Because despite the huge increase in mail-in voting that we've been talking about, roughly half of all voters will actually cast their ballots in-person on Tuesday.
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