Vermont's Universal Mail-In Voting Has Campaigns Rethinking Outreach
The advent of universal mail-in ballots in Vermont this year has turned Election Day into Election Season, and political experts say the new landscape could reroute candidates’ paths to victory in November.
Shaking hands and kissing babies is probably the last thing prospective voters want from their political candidates right now, and the coronavirus pandemic has forced campaigns to invent a whole new kind of retail politics.
But social distancing isn’t the only curveball COVID-19 has thrown candidates this year: For the first time in state history, every registered voter in Vermont will be getting a general election ballot sent to their mailbox between late September and early October.
Voters who couldn’t get time off from work on Election Day in the past, or just didn’t have the bandwidth to request an absentee ballot, are suddenly in play in 2020, according to Meg Polyte, campaign manager for Democratic candidate for governor David Zuckerman.
“And with those barriers removed, there may very well be people that have always wanted to vote, they just kind of never got around to like, being able to deal with getting their ballot mailed to them or getting to the polls on time,” Polyte said. “So we’re really trying to work on messaging that’s clear, that contrasts, and that’s accessible in form to them.”
"Suddenly you're hit with everybody receiving the ballot at the same time, and in a way that allows you to sort of broaden your universe, but it also requires a lot of guessing." — Conor Casey, former director of the Vermont Democratic Party
Zuckerman’s campaign isn’t the only one hoping to capitalize on the new universe of potential voters. And some longtime political operatives say the advent of universal mail-in voting is a game changer for the candidates, parties and political action committees looking for big wins in November.
“It’s like playing a different sport really,” said Conor Casey, former executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party. “I’m very grateful not to be a campaign manager in the general election cycle here.”
Casey says normal campaigns usually take on the same “cookie-cutter” design, where they target their messaging and resources on people that are most likely to vote, and then do everything in their power to get them to show up on Election Day.
Universal mail-in ballots, Casey said, has turned convention on its head.
“Suddenly you’re hit with everybody receiving the ballot at the same time, and in a way that allows you to sort of broaden your universe, but it also requires a lot of guessing,” Casey said. “There’s a lot of unknown factors here.”
Lauren Hierl, who runs the political action arm of an environmental organization called Vermont Conservation Voters, said she agrees.
“I think this is going to really upend kind of traditional ways people engage in the elections in Vermont,” she said.
Hierl said says political parties and PACs have amassed a trove of valuable data on likely voters. But she said the low-propensity voters that campaigns don’t usually spend a lot of time and money reaching out to are now a key demographic.
“It’s a lot of people that you don’t necessarily have data on or know what they’re going to do, so we could end up with a lot of interesting results on election night,” Hierl said.
She added that universal mail-in ballots will also force a shift in with conventional campaign timing. Normally, she said, campaigns horde resources for their get-out-the-vote programs in late October and early November.
“And now … when ballots first go out, I think you’re going to want to do a push, because I think a lot of people might just turn them right around, fill them out, drop them in the mail,” Hierl said.
"The consensus seems to be that vote-by-mail boosts overall participation but not by nearly as much as you think." — Matt Dickinson, Middlebury College
Jeff Bartley, who used to oversee statewide operations for the Vermont GOP, said he thinks the new landscape could be a boon for Republicans.
Bartley said internal polling at the GOP consistently showed that more Vermonters self-identify as Democrats than Republicans. But he said the plurality of the electorate identifies as neither. And he said polling shows that many of them are low-propensity voters who lean right.
“And we have 40,000 of those identified in the state of Vermont that just rarely vote,” Bartley said. “I think there are a lot of Republican votes left on the table — I’ve always felt that way.”
Universal mail-in ballots, he added, give Republicans a chance to finally grab them.
Based on the research so far, however, universal mail-in voting hasn’t fueled any new partisan advantages.
“The studies that we’ve done so far do not universally find that one party is favored over another party,” said Matt Dickinson, professor of political science at Middlebury College.
Dickinson said six states already have universal mail-in balloting.
“And it actually allowed us for a national experiment, to sort of look at the before and after as these states moved,” Dickinson said.
Not only is universal mail-in balloting a wash when it comes to partisan advantage, Dickinson said it also hasn’t resulted in massive increases in voter turnout.
“The consensus seems to be that vote-by-mail boosts overall participation but not by nearly as much as you think,” he said.
There’s already some indication though that the experience in Vermont might be different: The state smashed the record for turnout in a primary in August, in part because of new coronavirus protocols that made it easier to request a mail-in ballot.