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Senate eyes more election authority for Condos

Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos

While Gov. Phil Scott’s administration and the Secretary of State’s office volley over expanding mail-in voting for the general election, Senate lawmakers have drafted standby legislation to give Secretary of State Jim Condos full authority to make COVID-19 emergency election decisions.
The Vermont Legislature had passed a measure last month that required Scott and Condos agree on emergency coronavirus election changes.
However, Scott signaled Monday he would not block legislative action regarding mail-in voting for the November election.
The Senate Government Operations Committee, which typically initiates election-related legislation, drafted a bill — allowing Condos to take swift action — if the secretary of state and the governor fail to agree on voting protocols by the end of the week.
“I’m a little disappointed we’re having to have this conversation at all, because it seems entirely unnecessary,” Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, said Tuesday.
Bray said the governor has almost “invited” the Legislature to put forward additional elections legislation and that the Senate should take Scott up on his offer.
“If it’s clarity for the administration, that it’s the Legislature making this choice, then I’m feeling fully confident in the Secretary of State’s office to do this well and I would love to make their job easier, and the messaging to Vermonters far more clear and direct,” Bray said.
Committee Chair Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, agreed with Bray, as did Vice Chair Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington and Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor. The fifth member, Sen. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland, expressed concerns about the effect of changes on city and town clerks.
Chris Winters, Vermont’s deputy secretary of state, told lawmakers Tuesday that his office is currently working with the governor’s team and said he is hopeful there will be no need for the legislation.
“We’re struggling to understand exactly what the governor’s objections are,” Winters said. “He’s still got a few remaining concerns that we’re just trying to understand better and hope that we can address and we hope that that can be done this week.”
“If not, I think it’ll be time to start thinking about plan B,” Winters added, referring to the legislation. “At this point we’re not asking you to do anything.”
Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, said in an interview Tuesday that he thinks the “best outcome” would be for Scott and Condos to agree without the Legislature taking additional action.
“In an ideal world that would occur on that process, because it would really show full buy-in that this is the right, safest, method,” Ashe said.
Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, agreed with Ashe but added she did not fully understand why Scott would want to make his decision in August and potentially lose out on the ability to use federal funding.
“I would like the two people in charge of this — that the Legislature put in charge — to be able to work something out. That would be the ideal,” Johnson said.
“I’m not sure why the governor would say ‘Yes let’s incur the expense,’ but let’s leave a door open that would mean that Vermont had to pay rather than the federal government,” she added.
House Government Operations Chair Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, D-Bradford, said her committee is open to taking up another emergency elections bill “if the secretary of state believes we should push harder.”
“My sense is that every day or week that is wasted, it puts it more in danger of being an inefficient or poorly executed system,” Copeland-Hanzas said of delaying the election officials from being able to implement their plan.
Copeland-Hanzas added that she is not surprised by Scott’s reluctance to approve the mail-in voting expansion, but is simply confused.
“I don’t understand it,” she said. “He says he has no problem with mailing people ballots, but then he says fanciful things like he wants it to go back to normal. We all want it to go back to normal.”
“I don’t understand if he has no objection to it, why wouldn’t he do it now,” she added.
Condos has advocated moving ahead with a universal mail-in ballot system as soon as possible to keep large crowds from forming at polling locations in November, when a second wave of COVID-19 is possible and public health concerns may prevent people from voting at physical locations.
Under Condos’ proposal, a ballot would be sent from a centralized location to every active voter. People would still be allowed to go to the polls to vote.
The Republican governor has said he is not politically opposed to moving forward with a vote by mail election, but has resisted Condos’ proposal, citing concerns with making a decision about an election that is six months away and fearing that changing the voting format could confuse Vermonters.
Last week, Scott sent a memo telling Condos to set up the necessary infrastructure needed to facilitate mailing ballots to all active registered voters. The governor, however, said he wanted to wait to decide whether they would be sent out until after the August primary.
“We’ve responded back saying that puts us in a very difficult position,” Winters said Tuesday.
Winters the Secretary of State’s office must finalize its contracts with its mailing houses and printers by the end of May in order to send ballots to more than a half a million potential Vermont voters.
“We’ve gotten some certainty out of the governor by him saying he thinks we ought to do this, but he’s also, at the same time, saying we could possibly change our minds in August, and that’s a really difficult position for us,” Winters said.
Will Senning, director of elections and campaign finance at the Secretary of State’s office, said the two mailing houses he contracts with will not wait on standby between August and November to send out ballots at a moment’s notice. He said it was poor planning to not simply approve the secretary of state’s proposal.
“I just think it’s a very, very, bad idea to leave this decision until after the primary in August,” Senning  said. “I think it’s untenable, frankly.”
Scott’s remarks on Monday and the decision by Senate lawmakers to have legislation on standby to give Condos more authority comes after mounting pressure on the governor to approve expanded mail-in voting.
A coalition of progressive organizations, led by Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), called on Scott to immediately sign off on universal mail-in voting. On Wednesday, Ben & Jerry’s — partnered with VPIRG — ran a full page ad in Seven Days, urging the governor to support the vote by mail initiative.
“While we admire his leadership during the COVID-19 crisis, vote by mail must happen, and we are raising awareness of the governor’s delay in signing on,” a Ben & Jerry’s spokesperson said in a statement.
VTDigger’s Xander Landen contributed reporting.

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