early voting

In this file photo, Susan Avery of Brattleboro drops off her filled-out ballot at a collection box outside of the Brattleboro Municipal Building on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020.

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MONTPELIER — All four Southern Vermont state Senators voted Tuesday in favor of a bill that would permanently enshrine voting by mail-in voting for general elections.

The bill, S. 15, passed a second reading voice vote 27-3, and was set for formal third reading Wednesday.

Bennington district senators Dick Sears and Brian Campion and Windham district senators Jeanette White and Becca Balint, all Democrats, voted yes.

The proposal formalizes the voting process the state followed in the 2020 general election by requiring town and city clerks to mail ballots to all active registered voters. It would then be up to voters to choose whether to return the ballots by mail, deliver them by hand, or vote in person on Election Day.

That process, set in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the polls, led to the state’s voters smashing the previous voter turnout record. 370,968 voters — 73 percent of the state’s 506,312 registered voters — cast ballots in the election, and 75 percent of those voters turned in absentee ballots before or on Election Day.

The previous record of 326,822 votes was set in the 2008 general election.

Primary elections are not covered by the proposal and will be handled in a separate bill, White said.

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The bill makes other changes used in the 2020 general election permanent. It allows for outdoor or drive-up polling places, gives towns and school districts the option of conducting voting by mail, and allows clerks to process absentee ballots up to a month before Election Day.

It also proposes an allowance for voters to correct “defective” ballots that could not be counted because the voting process was not followed correctly.

“Elections are the foundation of our democracy and the more people who participate, the more secure the base,” White said. “I am excited at this move to make voting more accessible. And huge gratitude to the Secretary of State elections division, town clerks and all the groups who worked hard to make 2020 a success [including our postal workers], thus leading to the passage of this bill.”

Balint, the Senate President Pro Tem, hailed the Senate Government Operations Committee for its work on the bill. She praised White, her Windham seatmate, as “a true champion of the people on this issue for years, and she has worked very hard to expand and protect the franchise.”

“Our action today stands in stark contrast to legislatures across the country who continue voter suppression efforts, targeting practices like mail-in voting that have correlated with higher turnout among people of color,” Balint added. “The Vermont Senate recognizes that our democracy, and our state, are strengthened when we make elections more accessible to all.”

“When we make voting more accessible, more people vote. When we make voting more accessible, democracy better reflects the will of the people,” Balint said.

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.