Early voting has already started for Vermont’s August primary. Secretary of State Jim Condos says many voters are interested because of concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. This hour, we look at some of the major changes in Vermont’s election law, including a new vote-by-mail system that goes into place this year.
Our guest is:
- Jim Condos, secretary of state for Vermont
Broadcast live on Thursday, July 9, 2020 at noon. Rebroadcast at 7 p.m.
The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Bob Kinzel: Let's start off by taking a look at the August 11 primary. I believe every registered voter in Vermont is going to be receiving or already has received a postcard from your office, providing them with the opportunity to request an early voting ballot from their town clerk. Why did you take this approach?
Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos: First, I think it's important to recognize that everything we're doing this year as a result of COVID-19, it is based on two unwavering goals that are driving our decision making. First, we want to preserve every Vermonter's right to vote, and second, we want to protect the health and safety of voters, town clerks and obviously our poll workers, our election workers.
So the reason why we chose to do it this way was twofold: One, we didn't have enough time to set up vote by mail, the direct vote by mail for the primary, because we couldn't we couldn't get any kind of an agreement with the governor. And in fact, our vendors that we're using told us that if we really wanted to do it for August, we would have had to start probably in January or February to get ready for it. But it did open up a window, though. We do have the time to try to get things in order, and the logistics out of the way, to prepare for the November general election.
Do you think that most Vermont voters were or are unaware of the early voting system? And you just need to provide them with a reminder?
Well, we do a lot of reach-out via social media, press releases, when early vote periods start anyway. But we felt that this [the post cards] was a method to try to get bring it to the top of the top of the priority list for folks across the state. Many of the states, red states and blue states, are using this approach of sending out a postcard reminder or absentee request postcards to all their registered voters. I also want to clarify one thing: It’s not to all registered voters; it is to all active registered voters. We have about 480,000 registered voters in Vermont. 450,000 of those are what we consider active. The other 30,000 are those that have been challenged by local boards of civil authority, and their town clerks to to verify their address or whether they are still considered a voter in Vermont.
They’re going to get a separate postcard, which actually will be going out, I believe, next week, asking them to affirm where they're living. So this is just a new approach that we’ve tried. It includes a postage-paid, return postcard, where the return card goes to the town clerk, and this whole process was paid for by the state.
So you were saying you've got some updated numbers. We've still got a ways to go before the August 11 primary. But it seems like there's a lot of voter interest in some of these early ballots.
Yeah, and don't forget, we're talking about a statewide primary, and the statewide primary is a little bit of a different animal than the general election. That also weighed into our thinking around how we would move forward. But the statewide primary is actually three primaries. These are three elections in one: there's a Republican nomination process, there's a Democratic nomination process and there’s a Progressive nomination process. So each of those are separate elections. You are you will be sent – or if you show up in person, you will receive – three ballots; one for each party. You are allowed to vote on one of them. Nobody knows which one you're voting on. And the other two must be discarded, either in person at the local polling place or in the mail when you mail your ballot back.
I'm just going to give a little bit of historical context here. In August of 2016, which was the last presidential election, we had 120,000 people who voted in the primary. Of that, we had 22,300 absentee voters in that primary. And in the August primary of 2018, we had 107,600 actual voters for that primary, and we had 17,100 absentee votes in that primary.
- 2016 Primary: 120,000 voters (22,300 absentee ballots)
- 2018 Primary: 107,600 voters (17,200 absentee ballots)
If you totaled absentee votes that were cast in both elections, that was about 40,000, roughly. And we know as of yesterday at 3 p.m., we had over 50,000 people who had requested early absentee votes to be mailed to them. So we have surpassed the equivalent of both 2018 and 2016 for totals.
Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that we will have an increased voter turnout, but we suspect we will. We don't know at this point whether these folks are just shifting from voting in person versus the mail, or not. But the individual voter who makes that request for the primary will receive the three ballots. They'll receive three internal envelopes. One envelope is for their voted ballot. You will vote your ballot, [then] you will put it into that that envelope, you will sign that ballot, which is under penalty of perjury. Then, you’ll put that in the return envelope, which is the second envelope. And then there's a third envelope for your unvoted ballots, or your discarded ballots. All of that has to come back to the town clerk, and these are pre-addressed to the town clerk and prepaid postage. So it’s really a very simple process and goes along with our message that it's simple, safe and secure.
Those are really interesting numbers, especially when you look at the ballot requests for 2020 so far being at more than 50,000 – exceeding the totals in 2016 and 2018. In talking with town clerks, do you have the sense that there are a fair number of voters who have concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, who really prefer to vote by mail?
I think that is a strong message that's out there. I just met with a group of clerks this week to discuss the general election. In general, they're seeing a tremendous number of people requesting absentee ballots. One of the problems we have is the election workers themselves. They fall into the cohort of the most vulnerable for this virus. So the amount of poll workers that we will have available is also a concern. And that's one of the reasons why we and the town clerks are hoping that more people will use the mail-in version because that will drive down the in-person voting and actually help protect.
What about a universal vote-by-mail system?
There are there are currently five states that use a universal vote-by-mail system. Those five states are Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Utah and Hawaii. I know Oregon has been doing that since the late 1990s. Washington started in the 2000s. So it's this is nothing new. But also, our military personnel have been voting by mail since the Civil War. So it's a tried and true method. In the last few years, the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan organization, did a study and found that the voting by mail did not increase voter fraud. I know New Jersey and California are planning to use universal vote-by-mail systems. And there are other states – even Republican states – that are using a more absentee request-style system, but trying to get more people to use vote-by-mail for this year's election.
Is it the case that if you make an error – say, put your ballot in the wrong envelope or forget to sign the certificate on the envelope that reads “Voted Ballot,” – and drop your ballot in the mail, that your vote will not be counted? Is it true that you cannot make corrections to your ballot of any kind if you vote early, before Election Day?
That is all correct, and we're following the state law. There is no provision to bring back your ballot if you change your mind or make an error. Once you vote that ballot, put it in the mail, it is gone. It's been submitted to the town clerk. Once the town clerk receives that ballot, there is no chance to bring that ballot back to make the change. We have no recovery process for that. That is something we may look at for the future. But for this current year, we can't do it.
So when you're sending it back via the mail, you need to place the voted ballot inside the certificate envelope. You need to complete and sign the certificate envelope. It requires your name and a signature, under penalty of perjury. You need to put the unvoted ballots in the unvoted ballot envelope, which is clearly marked. And then you need to seal both envelopes and place them in the mailing envelope, which is already pre-addressed with postage paid. We’ve tried to make this as simple as possible, but you need to pay attention to the instructions to send your voted ballot back to us.
Secretary Condos, why have a different system in November? Why wouldn't the one that you're using for the August primary work in November as well?
We have less people that actually come out to vote in the August primary. Typically, it's about 20% to 25% of the voter checklist. So it's about 100,000 to 125,000 people who will come out for that.
The general election is a much different election, where we're only sending out one ballot. You only have to fill out one ballot and we have a much higher voter participation. Vermont was ranked 11th in the nation under our current system that we had after the 2018 election.
So we're at about 65% to 70% for the general election, which is about 300,000 to 350,000 people. The object of why we're sending the ballot itself? One is to make it easier for folks, and two, is to ensure that no voter who forgot or missed their chance to request a ballot needs to make that difficult last minute decision about challenging their health, perhaps, or their right to vote and have to go to do it in-person.
Because you do need time.
We're trying to get these out within the early part of that early 45-day early vote period. And what we're trying to do is, is set it up so that people can access their ballot without danger to their health – to themselves or to the poll workers. So it really is two different systems in a sense. Although the general election will pretty much operate exactly the same, with the exception that we're mailing the ballot directly to the voters.
We’ve now had automatic voter registration for three-plus years, through the Department of Motor Vehicles. They essentially ask the same questions of people who register for a driver’s license that we would ask of someone registering to vote. The last count I knew was about 17 or 18 states currently use automatic voter registration, with more states having bills in their legislatures to be passed and voted on.
Voting is a constitutional right, and we are trying to make it available to all eligible voters across the country. The true voter fraud in this country is denying any eligible Vermonter or American the right to cast a ballot in an election. Elections are the basis, the very core of our democratic process. It's where it all starts. And we want to make sure that everybody has access to and the opportunity to vote their ballot.
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