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Should Vermont Shift To A Vote-By-Mail System?

Election observers from the OSCE are watching midterm elections across the country.

The COVID-19 crisis has raised questions about the November general election. Like, will it possible to vote safely in person? And what would it look like for states to shift to a vote-by-mail system? This hour, we take an in-depth look at how Vermont is responding. We talk to elections analysts and officials, and we also hear from you.

Our guests are:

Broadcast live at noon on Thursday, May 14, 2020; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

The following has been edited and paraphrased for clarity.

The Statewide Perspective: Secretary of State Jim Condos

Bob Kinzel: Why do you feel a vote-by-mail system is necessary for the upcoming election?

Jim Condos: This would just be for the 2020 election in November. We want to preserve every Vermonter’s right to vote, and protect the health and safety of voters, town clerks and election workers. It would not be mandatory to send a ballot through the mail, just an option for voters should there be another surge in the pandemic. We want to start the process of adding vote-by-mail to the election now, because we need time to put the proper infrastructure in place.

Would the state need funding to implement the vote-by-mail system?

Jim Condos: We’ve estimated that the immediate cost going into August will be about $1 million and the final cost will be over $3 million. We do have federal money to fund this through the Help America Vote Act, but the problem is we also get audited on how we spent that money. So if we use that money to set up all the infrastructure, contracts, etc. and then decide not to go through with it, the federal government might ask for that money to be repaid. And I don’t have that money in my budget.

"Voter fraud is almost non-existent... It's not a partisan issue. It's really about protecting our at-risk voters." - Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos

What is the disagreement between you and Gov. Phil Scott about this issue?

Jim Condos: The governor wants to wait to make the decision until after the August primary, but I don’t think that’s enough time to get everything in order. This isn’t a fight between the two of us, and he has said he trusts my office to make the right call. We just need to come to an agreement so we can act fast and appropriately before the election.

Would you like lawmakers to step in and help clarify this disagreement?

Jim Condos: I believe the governor and I can come to an agreement. If the Legislature has to deal with this it could take several weeks for a resolution to be reached. I would prefer to stay away from that option and come to an agreement with the governor.

Is security and voter fraud a concern for introducing a vote-by-mail system?

Jim Condos: Voter fraud is almost non-existent. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but it’s not frequent. It’s not a partisan issue. It’s really about protecting our at-risk voters.

More from VPR: Could Vermont Hold Elections Entirely By Mail? Sec. Condos Weighs In

The City-Level Perspective: Montpelier City Clerk John Odum

Bob Kinzel: What are your main concerns for the upcoming election?

John Odum: It’s hard to predict where we will be in the pandemic come August and November, so safety is a huge concern. The uncertainty is really problematic. From the clerk’s perspective, we need as much time as possible to make our workflow and staffing plans, so we need to know if voting-by-mail is going to happen as soon as possible.

How does a vote by mail affect your office?

John Odum: That’s the biggest question: We will need some funding from the state to make some physical changes? For example, we would need drop off boxes because not every voter is comfortable actually mailing their ballot. We wouldn’t need as much staffing for election day, but we will need it to process the large amounts of ballots beforehand, so the staffing needs will more or less equalize. The big thing is shifting our workflow.

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What problems could you expect with incorrect ballots?

John Odum: Yes that’s one of my main concerns. It’s heartbreaking to reject a ballot because something wasn’t signed right or the ballot wasn’t properly sealed. It doesn’t happen very often, but we will have to keep an eye on it. We will need to be doing some more voter education, as well.

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."
Lydia worked for Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS from 2019 until 2022.
Emily was a Vermont Edition producer at Vermont Public Radio until September 2021.
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