Vergennes eyeing earlier voting hours

VERGENNES — Vergennes residents could at some point have the option of voting in the morning before work, as do voters in most other Vermont towns.
At their Nov. 14 meeting, Vergennes City Council members talked seriously about changing the 9 a.m. start of voting hours to 7 a.m. The statewide closing hour for polls is 7 p.m.
Alderman Jeff Fritz opened the discussion by recommending a charter change, which would require approval by residents and the Vermont Legislatures, to make polling hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Fritz and other council members said if people, especially commuters, can’t vote on their way to work, not all are able to return before polls close.
“I’ve heard from a number of people they were unable to vote because the hours are very inconvenient,” Fritz said.
City Manager Mel Hawley said the Vergennes Board of Civil Authority (BCA) — made up of council members, City Clerk Joan Devine and Vergennes justices of the peace — had the authority to set voting hours for November and special elections, but that a charter change would be required for voting on Town Meeting Day.
The BCA, however, would have to meet before each election to set the hours, Hawley said.
Devine, who already works long hours — as much as 16 hour a day — to run city elections, objected to the proposed change.
She said the existing hours are adequate because of new laws that allow anyone to request an absentee ballot, and due to early voting.
“You can vote 30 days before the election in our office,” she said. “You don’t need a reason to vote absentee.”
Devine also said new state laws allow same-day voting, meaning a trained registrant must be on the site during election hours.
Council members who spoke out were sympathetic to Devine’s hours, but not swayed by her argument.
“This isn’t the first election when I’ve heard we need earlier election hours,” said Alderman Matt Chabot. “I think 7 a.m. is appropriate.”
Alderman Renny Perry recounted his experiences from Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire.
“I’ve been a voter in four states, and this is the only place it isn’t 7 to 7,” Perry said.
Council members did not make a decision on whether to seek a charter change to create uniform hours (it has been done in the past — in 1990 residents voted to expand hours from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. to the current hours), or whether to make the decision, as the majority of the BCA, to start a year from now to create a 12-hour voting day, at least in November.
If they do choose either option, Hawley said, as members of the legal entity that oversees voting they should expect to take a more active role in running city elections, including training to register voters.
“If you want it, you’ve got to get on the team,” Hawley said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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