Secretary of State: Primary election date must be moved to the first Tuesday in August

MONTPELIER -- The Vermont Secretary of State wants the Legislature to move the primary election date to the first week of August.

Jim Condos says the state must move the primary date up this year in order to comply with federal law. The Department of Justice sued the state in 2012 when a recount in the governor's race led to a delay in the mailing of General Election ballots to overseas voters, including military personnel.

It's not the first time Condos has come to lawmakers asking for an earlier primary. Last year, the Senate resoundingly voted down his proposal, 29-0. The defeat was an embarrassment for Condos, but nevertheless, he has brought the provision back, this time to the House Government Operations Committee as the omnibus elections bill, S.86, goes through round two in the Vermont Legislature.

Part of the problem politically is that the primary election date, which for many years was held in mid-September, was changed just a few years ago and lawmakers are loath to move it again. The election is currently held the fourth Tuesday in August. Last session senators said if anything they'd like to move the primary date back to mid-September.

But Condos says if lawmakers don't change the date, the Department of Justice will do it for them.

In a letter sent to the secretary last month, the Department of Justice explained that it imposed a primary election date of June 26 (regardless of what day of the week the date falls on) for New York State because the elections division violated the deadline and because it did not allow enough time between the primary and the General Election to send ballots overseas.

Condos says if the Legislature changes the date, it must be 80 days prior to the General Election.

The Department of Justice sued the Vermont Secretary of State because 200 out of 800 ballots requested in 2012 by overseas voters were not sent by email or mail within the legal time limit. A recount in the gubernatorial Progressive primary between Annette Smith and Martha Abbott took several weeks to finalize, leaving Condos and his elections staff just three days to get General Election ballots printed and mailed to overseas voters.

Senators blocked the provision because they said that other states have a late primary, too, citing New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Massachusetts as examples.

"We contacted all three states, they all said the same thing: if we had a statewide recount like you did, we would have been in trouble," Condos said. Massachusetts is moving its primary from September to August, he said.

A change in Vermont's primary date would necessitate changes in 14 sections of the law and would mean moving the candidate filing deadline up.

Condos has also suggested several additional alterations to the elections law, including:

-- A requirement that write-in candidates declare their intention. This change would allow town clerks to ignore write-ins for the voter's dog, household plant or Mickey Mouse. The declaration can occur the Friday before the election, he said.

-- A change in the major and minor party status requirements. Currently, in order to gain major party status, the party must win 5 percent of the vote for a statewide office in a General Election and and organize in 15 towns. Condos wants the Legislature to require that a party be organized in 30 or 40 towns in eight counties. Minor parties can be formed by three people. The secretary says a minor party should be organized in 10 towns or three counties.

"If you want party status, it ought to mean something but that's something for the policy committee to decide," Condos said.


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