While registered voters in Vermont likely will be mailed ballots for the General Election in November, the practice remains the subject of debate.

Secretary of State Jim Condos stated in an email Monday that his office is working with town clerks on a directive that will be issued shortly — one that will create the process for mailing a ballot to every active registered voter for the General Election in November. Voters still can show up in person at the polls or use the existing absentee voting system.

“The only major change we are planning for regarding the 2020 November General Election is the pro-active mailing of ballots to every active registered voter,” Condos stated. “Challenged voters will not be mailed a ballot, and would need to affirm their eligibility to register to vote with their Town Clerk, and request their ballot, vote early at the Clerk’s office, or vote at the polls on Election Day.”

Changes to the voting process are being considered in states across the country in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Vermont, Democrats and Republicans have been debating the issue in heated exchanges.

“There’s overwhelming support outside the legislature and inside the legislature with a few loud voices on the Republican side of things,” said R. Christopher Di Mezzo, director of communications for the Vermont Democratic Party. “Some folks on the Republican side of things have been raising concerns about ‘ballot harvesting.’”

He said ballot harvesting is a Republican talking point in reference to ballot collecting, a practice he said is legal in several states, Vermont among them. “It just says if you are a voter you are allowed to trust a handful of folks besides yourself to deliver your ballot,” said Di Mezzo. “That’s the extent of what ballot collection is. Folks on the right are saying it’s ballot harvesting and that candidates will be going and collecting ballots that their supporters have filled out and delivering them to the mailbox.”

The Vermont Democratic Party has produced material critical of Republican politicians for their remarks to media on mail-in voting.

“We have been doing our best to make sure that voters know where their Republican representatives stand on this issue because we think it’s important that if your state representative or state senator voted to make it more difficult and less safe for you to vote in November that’s information voters should know,” he said.

Republicans have responded, stating Democrats have misrepresented the party’s position.

On June 24, Republican State Party Chair, Deb Billado, issued a statement saying Vermont Republicans were unanimous in supporting making it easier for Vermonters to vote in the August primary. “While Democrats cited examples of other states that have expanded access by sending ballots to every address on record, Democrats would not even once consider also imitating the protections those states put in place to prevent ballot harvesting,” Billado wrote. “Democrats refused to make it illegal for lobbyists and corporate interests from getting in between a voter and the voting machine.

“When this is compounded with the Democratic Party’s history of expanding access and ignoring common-sense integrity measures common in other states, this presents a disturbing trend that Vermonters should be mindful of,” she wrote.

Billado didn’t return a call seeking comment on Monday.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said the state already has an absentee voting system in place, and that a better use of funds would be to send registered voters a postcard ahead of the General Election asking them if they want a ballot mailed to them. He said he’s not against mail-in ballots.

“This proposal that’s now in front of us is a proposal to mail live ballots to every address where the Secretary of State thinks there is an active voter,” Benning said. “Trouble is, I serve on the Board of Civil Authority here in Lyndon, we purge our lists all the time, but we are never 100% accurate, so ballots are going to end up going to places where we have no idea who gets them.”

He said the legislature didn’t investigate the security measures of other states that use mail-in ballots and has sent Condos a letter about it.

Condos said in his email Monday that the term “live ballot” means nothing, and that there are many laws and safeguards in place for elections.

“The real question to ask is ‘how do we prevent voter suppression?’” he wrote. “In the face of a highly contagious virus, mailing a ballot to every active registered voter is the best way to reduce in-person traffic at polling places, while ensuring that no voter feels like they need to choose between their health and their right to cast a ballot.”

For the primaries in August, voters will, or have already been, sent postcards telling them they can request a ballot to vote by mail, said Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, chairwoman of the House Committee on Government Operations. Hanzas said the hope was to mail people ballots for the primary, but the disagreements between Gov. Phil Scott, Condos and the legislature didn’t leave enough time. She said the primary elections also will help update the voter registration lists ahead of the General Election.

keith.whitcomb

@rutlandherald.com

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