Eric Davis: Bill would expand voting rights
Last week the Vermont Senate approved, and sent to the House, a bill that would establish vote-by-mail as a regular part of general elections in Vermont. If the House also approves the bill and Gov. Scott signs it, both of which are very likely, all active registered voters in Vermont will receive a ballot in the mail prior to every general election, beginning with the November 2022 election.
Vermont would then become the sixth state — and the only one in the East — to mail ballots to all voters prior to every general election. The other states where this is done are Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
Last November, all Vermont voters received ballots in the mail, as part of a special package of election law changes resulting from the pandemic. A record 360,000 voters cast ballots in November 2020, more than a 10% gain over the previous record turnout of 327,000 in 2008.
The bill passed by the Senate includes a number of other important provisions. Towns would be encouraged to install secure drop boxes on municipal property for the return of voted mail ballots, and the Secretary of State’s office would provide drop boxes to towns that currently do not have them.
Also, voters who return defective mail ballots — usually because they did not sign the returned ballot envelope, or, for the primary election, did not return voted and unused ballots in separate envelopes — would be contacted by town clerks and given an opportunity to correct the errors before Election Day. Finally, the bill would authorize towns and cities that wish to do so to mail ballots to all voters for municipal elections.
Additionally, the legislation would establish a Voting Access Study Committee, with staff support from the Secretary of State’s office, that would report back by December 2022 on other measures that could be taken to increase voter turnout in Vermont. One of these measures would be extending vote-by-mail to primary as well as general elections.
During the Senate Government Operations Committee’s discussion of the vote-by-mail bill, some members supported universal vote-by-mail in primaries. Other members had reservations about this, saying that primary elections are part of political party activity in Vermont, and that the parties should have the main responsibility of turning out their voters for the primaries.
I believe that universal vote-by-mail should be extended to primary elections, largely because it would lead to increased voter turnout. In 2020, the Secretary of State’s office mailed all active voters a postcard with instructions on how they could request a mail ballot for the August primary. As a result, primary turnout was a record: nearly 160,000 voters, up by 25% from the previous high, but still less than half that of the general election. Universal vote-by-mail could lead to even higher primary turnout.
As for the argument that primaries are largely party elections, Vermont’s open primary law means that any voter may cast a vote in any major party’s primary. The qualifications for primary voters and candidates are set through state statutes, not by party rules. High turnout in primaries can be a way of generating enthusiasm for candidates in the general election, especially in open-seat contests, where primaries often involve multiple candidates who may not be as well known as incumbents.
In many states, Republican-controlled legislatures are considering measures to make it more difficult to vote, such as limits on mail balloting, early voting and the number of polling places. These measures are justified by Donald Trump’s false claims that election fraud was widespread in 2020.
The Vermont General Assembly is one of the few state legislatures that is moving in the other direction, supporting universal vote-by-mail in the general election as a way of increasing voter participation.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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