Ballot requests soar with vote-by-mail plan

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MONTPELIER — Cards sent by the Vermont Secretary of State's office to every registered voter in the state have produced a dramatic increase in interest in voting by mail in the Tuesday, Aug. 11 primary election.

That's the word from Secretary of State Jim Condos. During an information session for reporters held online yesterday, Condos said that as of 9 a.m. Monday, the state's town clerks had received vote by mail requests from 74,907 voters.

That's 21 times more than the 3,560 such requests that had been made on the same day in 2018, and nine times more than the 7,966 requests made in 2016, Condos said. Those cards were mailed out starting late last month.

Condos said the Secretary of State's office is investing about $3 million in the effort to extend vote-by-mail participation and protect poll workers and voters from COVID-19. That includes postage, the cost of vote tabulation machines (at between $5,000 and $7,000 each) for towns that don't have them, printing costs for cards, personal protective equipment including masks, shields and sanitizer, and secure drop boxes where voters can drop off their ballots.

"Our town clerks are some of the hardest working municipal officials we have," Condos said. "They work really hard across this state every single day, and the greatest pride for them is the integrity of elections and the elections process."

But as the state invests in making voting by mail more widely available to promote voting and the safety of voters and poll workers alike during the COVID-19 pandemic, it's also taking seriously concerns voiced by legislators about who's collecting those ballots, Condos said.

While Condos repeatedly emphasized that voting by mail is not new and that cases of voter fraud are exceptionally rare and usually found and prosecuted, he said a directive going out this week will restrict candidates from directly collecting ballots from voters.

The directive will not, however, restrict campaign workers, political action committee members or political party staff from collecting ballots, he said.

"The real concern when the legislature was debating this was issue of candidates," Condos said. "The question of barring campaign staff, party staff and PAC members will be taken up with the Legislature and may be considered for the general election, he added.

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During the state House of Representatives' debate on voting by mail for the 2020 general election, House Republicans and a number of Bennington County Democrats supported amendments that would restrict who could return a vote-by-mail ballot, or prohibit candidates collecting ballots. Those amendments were defeated, and the vote by mail bill passed. Gov. Phil Scott allowed the bill to pass into law without signing it.

Voting by mail is secure, and there are numerous protocols in place to prevent voter fraud from occurring, Condos said. He cited a 2017 report by the Brennan Center for Justice, which found that voters are more likely to be struck by lightning than to impersonate another voter at the polls.

The report found that most reported incidents of voter fraud are traced to other sources, such as clerical errors.

"To skeptics concerned about voter integrity, I welcome that skepticism. We should all care," Condos said. "I only ask you look to the facts and the evidence.""The true voter fraud is to deny any eligible voter their right to cast a ballot," Condos added, repeating that statement for emphasis.

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Will Senning, the state's director of elections and campaign finance, noted that current state law does not prohibit candidates from collecting ballots. He also said the state's town and city clerks testified that there a number of Vermonters rely upon neighbors and friends to deliver their vote-by-mail ballots every year.

"The clerks spoke strongly to not wanting to turn away folks bringing in ballots on their neighbors' behalf, and that they have not seen indications of fraud," Senning said.

While the effort is designed to increase participation, it also is intended to reduce the number of voters physically visiting the polls, Condos said. He pointed to the example of Wisconsin, which had more than 1 million absentee votes, "but still had lines of 4-to-5 hours, and people were up against each other not following social distancing guidelines."

Condos took time during the news conference to lay out how voters can access the vote by mail system.

If you don't receive a card in the mail, registration to vote by mail in the primary van be obtained from the town clerk's office (check to make sure the clerk's office is open) or at mvp.vermont.gov.

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When you receive your ballot, follow the instructions provided very carefully. "I cannot stress this enough," Condos said. The ballot packages will arrive with pre-paid postage, so all a voter need do is drop them in the mailbox.

Voters will receive a packet with ballots for all three of the state's major parties — Democratic, Republican and Progressive — and a pair of envelopes, one for the ballot they're voting and one for the two they're not voting. All three ballots must be returned for the vote to count.

"Do not write your name unless you're writing in yourself. This will render the ballot defective and it will not be counted," Condos said.

When completing the form, voters must fill out all fields and sign the statement, under penalty of perjury, certifying they are who they claim to be.

The package will come with postage already provided, but ballots can be returned to the town or city clerk personally up to primary day. But all ballots must be received — not postmarked — no later than 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 11, in order to count, Condos said.

Voters are encouraged to check with their town clerk to make sure where polling is taking place, as some locations are changing due for social distancing concerns.

The state's primary election features races for party nominations for Governor, Lt. Governor, Auditor of Accounts and U.S. Congress, as well as local races.

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


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