Could Vermont Hold Elections Entirely By Mail? Sec. Condos Weighs In
Earlier this month in Wisconsin, primary elections were held despite the risk of contagion from the new coronavirus, after a bitter political battle ended with judicial rulings turning back the governor's attempt to delay the election.
Residents, many of them wearing masks, braved long lines to exercise their right to vote. Here in Vermont, we're looking ahead to a primary election in August, and then to the general election in November. Vermont’s Secretary of State Jim Condos is already planning for how to conduct those elections amidst the spread of COVID-19.
VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Secretary of State Jim Condos. Their interview below has been edited and condensed for clarity
Mitch Wertlieb: What was your impression of what happened in Wisconsin? Do you think they should have gone ahead and had those elections?
The simple answer is no; they should have postponed them. But the fact of the matter is that the very partisan Wisconsin Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the Republicans in Wisconsin. It was something that they didn't have to do. They didn't have to put people's lives in danger.
You have said, Secretary Condos, that no matter what happens with COVID-19, voting by mail will play a larger part in these coming elections in Vermont than in the past. It's been reported that your office is considering sending ballots by mail to all Vermont voters. What's your reasoning behind that?
So first, let me put this in perspective. We have two primary goals that are driving any decisions that we do make and we haven't made any as of yet.
We are currently in the process of gathering information from other states that have done this. There are five states that do vote by mail, where they actually send a ballot to every registered voter. We've been talking with some of my colleagues from those states to determine what the best path is for Vermont.
There are two overarching goals that we have. One is to preserve Vermonters’ right to vote in the upcoming elections — that's both the August 11th primary and the November 3rd general election. The second is to protect the health and safety of Vermonters from this virus as we go forward.
"We have to make these decisions in the next couple of weeks." — Secretary of State Jim Condos
Do you think we could be looking at an election where people are only voting by mail, and where voting in person is prohibited?
It's way too early to tell that right now. We have had a couple of communications with the governor's office, trying to get more information from the Department of Health as to what they expect.
Just to give you some of the timelines that we're talking about, we have an Aug. 11 statewide primary. The first day for ballots to be sent out is June 19. That's 45 days before the election. So we really have between now and June 19 to get our ducks in a row.
The timeline actually slips for the Nov. 3 election. Sept. 18 is the deadline for ballots to start going out, so this is not something we can wait until Aug. to make the decision about. We have to make these decisions in the next couple of weeks.
Let's say, hypothetically speaking, the decision was made to shut down in-person voting. Would that be done by the governor? Would it be done by you? Who would make that decision?
The current law before this thing all broke was that, as typical, we would have in-person voting, and that people could vote by mail if they chose to.
What the Legislature did at our urging, was to craft the language so that the governor and I and my office, in consultation with the governor's office and with his agreement, can move forward to make changes to the election process. The whole idea was that we didn't want to risk not having the Legislature in action so that we couldn't make those decisions later.
We also knew that we had to make decisions sooner than later. So it's basically my authority, in consultation and agreement with the governor, to make any changes.
President Trump has said that voting by mail risks, “tremendous potential for fraud.” What's your response to that concern?
Show me the proof — there isn't any. In fact, there have been several studies — one done by the Brennan Center in recent years — that show widespread voter fraud is just nonexistent. This is part of the rhetoric and fear that people use to try to denounce a particular way of doing business.
If you look at the first state in the country to go to vote-by-mail, it was the state of Washington, which has had a Republican secretary of state now for probably, I don't know, 18 or 20 consecutive years. And then you also have Utah, which has gone to all vote-by-mail. I don't think anybody would classify them as being a Democratic bastion.
What we are trying to do, is make sure that our town clerks, who are hardest-working municipal officials out there, have all the tools they need in order to properly manage and conduct the elections coming up [here in Vermont].