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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Election in August? Feds Pressure Vt. To Move Primary Date

Voters would cast ballots in early August if a bill to change the date of Vermont's primary elections is approved.

The Legislature is considering the bill because the federal government has sued Vermont over its current primary date. At the heart of the complaint is a provision that requires the state to send ballots out to overseas voters at least 45 days before the general election.

"I'm hoping that the rest of the Senate understands not only the complexities of the issue but also that if we don't do it then the (Department of Justice) will certainly come in. So I'd rather this be on our terms, we make the date on our terms and not on the federal government's terms. - Sen. President John Campbell

Meeting this deadline has been a problem in Vermont in the last two primary elections because there have been recounts in the gubernatorial race. In 2010, it was Democrats Peter Shumlin and Doug Racine, and in 2012, it was Progressives Martha Abbott and Annette Smith.

Donna Sweaney is the chairwomen of the House Government Operations committee. She’s taking the federal threat very seriously.  She notes that when New York State officials failed to respond to similar federal concerns, the Department of Justice came in and established a primary election date in June:

“It’s quite likely the Feds would come in and the Department of Justice, and set the date when we would have our primary,” said Sweaney. “And as it has been reported they’ve done that in New York because New York hasn’t been able to get it together.”

Sweaney’s committee is considering a bill to move Vermont’s primary election from the fourth Tuesday in August to the first Tuesday of August.

Some lawmakers are concerned that this earlier date will reduce voter turnout but Sweaney says the availability of early ballots should help.

“You can send away, you can call in and say send me my ballot so and it is the primary that we’re looking at,” said Sweaney. “And generally that’s how many people are very invested in what their party’s candidates are going to be.”

Secretary of State Jim Condos is strongly urging lawmakers to act on this bill.

“We don’t want to be in violation of federal law,” said Condos. “We certainly want to ensure that all of our military and overseas voters are allowed to exercise their constitutional right and this gives us the best opportunity to complete that.” 

Last year the Senate rejected a plan to move the primary up but Senate President John Campbell thinks the stakes are too high to reject it again.

“I hoping that the rest of the Senate understands not only the complexities of the issue but also that if we don’t do it then the DOJ will certainly come in,” said Campbell. “So I’d rather this be on our terms, we make the date on our terms and not on the federal government’s terms.”

House leaders are hoping to have the bill on the floor for debate by the end of next week.

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."
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