Vermont lawmakers hear testimony on bill allowing universal mail-in voting

Local News

MONTPELIER – The Vermont House of Representatives appears to be inching closer toward a vote on a bill that would make universal mail-in voting a mainstay for November elections.

On Thursday, the House Committee on Government Operations heard testimony on S.15 from the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office, the ACLU of Vermont and other advocates. The bill passed the Senate on March 17.

Deputy Secretary Chris Winters of the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office said some Vermonters have expressed increased concerns about voter fraud when it comes to mail-in voting. The most common fear has been the possibility of someone returning a ballot that was mailed to a voter who is no longer registered or no longer at that address.

“With an increase in mail-in ballots in S.15 comes an increased responsibility to make sure all the addresses in the voter checklist are as up to date and accurate as possible,” Winters said. “I would just say that due to the strides we’ve made over the last several years, our voter checklist is the most accurate it’s ever been.”

Under the universal mail-in system, all registered voters would get a ballot in the mail by early October, and have the option of either mailing or hand-delivering it to their town clerk’s office. Voters can also turn it in at a secure ballot drop-box, just as many did in 2020.

During Thursday’s testimony, ACLU of Vermont Advocacy Director Falko Schilling expressed concern about signature verification for mail-in votes, fearing it could result in more defective ballots.

He said certain groups of voters tend to have a higher rate of ballots turned down.

“Younger people are more likely to have their ballots found to be defective, this is also true for racial and ethnic minorities,” Schilling said. “People who’s names have changed… Women who might change their name might have a signature that evolves over time and is more likely to be mismatched. That is similar for people who are transgender or gender non-conforming where they might be going by a new name, and developing a new signature.”

Town Clerk’s offices would be required to notify a voter by mail if their ballot is found defective, unless there is five days or less before the election. In that case, they should try and use any available contact information to notify the voter.

The bill would also require the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office to submit a written report to the Legislature on voting access in Vermont no later than January 30, 2023.

The deadline had Justice for All Vermont Executive Director Mark Hughes wondering why it wouldn’t be completed sooner.

“Address this idea of access with a sense of urgency,” Hughes said. “Invest some resources to perhaps an outside entity doing some of this work.. I think there is some ongoing work in these areas that needs to be consistent, targeted and focused.”

Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint said record voter turnout in 2020 was a ‘bright spot’ in an otherwise chaotic year. In Vermont, 73 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2020 election, which shattered previous records.

Shortly after it passed the Senate, Governor Phil Scott said that he was largely in support of the bill.

“My only concern is that if we’re going to do it for the general election, why not do it for all of the other elections we have?” Scott said. “If it works for the general, it should work for some of the others.”

In Vermont 75 percent of those who voted in the 2020 election cast an absentee ballot.

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