Several advocacy organizations, including the ACLU of Vermont, Justice for All and Vermont Conservation Voters, came together Tuesday to encourage Gov. Phil Scott and Secretary of State Jim Condos to act to send all registered voters in the state a ballot by mail to encourage voting by mail this year, according to Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.
The groups are requesting that every voter be mailed a ballot, partially to continue the effort to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. The groups are also urging Vermont officials to keep in-person voting available, as safely as possible, and expand voter education and outreach.
The suggestions expand on legislation signed March 30 by Scott that would allow expanded voting by mail in response to the pandemic.
Burns said the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, or VPIRG, has had a long history of promoting public participation in government but had never taken a position before on voting by mail before the “crisis that we’re in right now.”
“In order to keep both voters and poll workers safe, it really does make sense to get as many votes cast through the mail as we possibly can, in order to reduce any lines or opportunities for contamination that could occur in the more typical in-person voting process,” he said.
ACLU of Vermont Advocacy Director Falko Schilling pointed out that Vermonters could stay healthy and still exercise their right to vote.
“As we fight this pandemic in our communities, we need to protect our health and our civil liberties — including our fundamental right to vote. One simple step Vermont can take right now to reduce the risk of disenfranchisement is to broaden access to voting by mail,” he said.
Ed Paquin, executive director of Disability Rights Vermont, said in a statement encouraging mail-in voting would continue Vermont’s tradition of accommodating the needs of voters so they can participate in elections..
Mark Hughes, executive director of Justice For All, said in a statement that the “already gutted Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the resurgence of the war on drugs” had resulted in an estimated 10 million disenfranchised black voter.
“It is a fact that this global pandemic is infecting and killing African Americans at overwhelmingly disproportionate rates. It is essential that a vote-by-mail process be immediately implemented,” he said.
In a recent op-ed, Condos acknowledged the need for change.
“Asking voters to congregate at polling places and stand in lines is the opposite of social distancing. We must protect voters and poll workers while preserving the right to vote. No Vermonter should have to choose between their health and casting a ballot. So, there is no doubt in my mind that we will need to make some adjustments,” Condos wrote.
In the editorial, Condos said the challenge was not knowing what will be happening with the viral spread at the time of the August primaries or November election but the decision about handling those elections can’t “wait until the final hour.”
There is no doubt in my mind, no matter the decision we make, our 2020 elections will rely on a significant increase in by-mail voting. Whether that means having a ballot sent to every registered voter or pushing a much greater number of voters to request a ballot by mail through our existing election procedures, we will need to take the steps necessary to heavily reduce in-person voting at the polls on election day,” he said.
Burns said he believed state officials are looking at ways to expand voting by mail to decide how change should be made.
“We did not get specific about how it should be done … but our organizations do expressly support an automatic process whereby all registered voters would receive a ballot in the mail as opposed to having to request an absentee ballot. The understanding that states that have an automatic vote by mail have a much higher participation rate,” he said.
In a statement, Lauren Hierl, executive director of Vermont Conservation Voters, said it was “critical” to protect the health of voters and poll workers as well as the security of the election.
“Voting by mail is the responsible choice for those who can right now, and I’m confident that the secretary of state and local elections officials can make it happen,” she said.