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Ask Bob: Can Vermont Parties Cancel Their Presidential Primary?

We're looking into whether parties in Vermont could cancel the state's presidential primary.
Tony Talbot
/
Associated Press File
Voters in Montpelier on Nov. 6, 2012. With another presidential election coming up in 2020, we're looking into whether parties in Vermont could cancel the state's presidential primary.

In the last few days, a number of states — including South Carolina, Nevada and Kansas — have cancelled their Republican presidential primaries for 2020. These are states where the political parties control the operations of their own primaries, but could a political party in Vermont cancel the state's presidential primary?

For an answer to this question, we look to VPR's senior political reporter Bob Kinzel, in this latest episode of "Ask Bob."

Could one of Vermont’s political parties decide on its own to cancel the state's presidential primary for 2020?

The simple answer is no, because the authorization for Vermont's presidential primary is embedded in state law.

The law says there will be a presidential primary on the first Tuesday of March in every town in the state. So you would have to amend current law to make any changes or, as some people have suggested, to turn it into a caucus system.

Have political parties tried to restrict who can vote in the state's primaries in the past?

Yes. Roughly 20 years ago, when Fred Tuttle won the Republican U.S. Senate nomination over businessman Jack McMullen, some GOP leaders were upset because they believed that Tuttle had benefited from Vermont's open primary system.

This system allows a voter to select which party's primary they want to participate in. The other remaining ballots are then thrown away, so no record is kept of which primary the voter selected.

Republican leaders urged lawmakers to set up a party registration system in Vermont, similar to the process used in a number of other states. However, it was not a popular idea in the Legislature.

How and when did Vermont's presidential primary become binding?

Vermont's presidential primary was created in 1976, but because Vermont doesn't have a system of party registration, the results were not considered binding.

However, then a deal was worked out with the national political parties. Under this agreement, when voters ask for a party ballot, town clerks record a letter next to the person's name on the checklist — either an "R" or a "D."

So for that one day, the voter is identified with a political party. But with the change, voters can also go into their town clerk's office the next day and ask for the letter to be removed.

Following this change, Vermont's delegates to the national convention have been allocated based on the results of the primary election.

Bonus Question: How does Vermont's early voting law work, and how does it compare to what other states are doing?

Vermont has one of the most expansive early voting laws in the country, as a voter can cast a ballot anytime starting 45 days before an election.

Some states have no early voting at all; the early primary states of New Hampshire and South Carolina are two examples. In order to vote absentee in those states, a person needs a written excuse.

But Vermont and most other early voting states do not have a requirement like that. All you have to do is request a ballot from your town clerk or visit their office and vote in person anytime during that 45-day period before the election.

The Democratic National Committee wants more states to adopt an early voting system because it thinks it will boost participation, but it's not clear at this point which states might do so before the 2020 presidential primary.

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