For weeks, we have been espousing the importance of being involved in the local municipal and school budget processes. The decisions being made today are very much going to dictate how communities fare in the days and months to come. The pandemic has shifted priorities, and put fresh emphasis on topics ranging from spending, to policy, to tax rates.
And while there has been lots of participation in some communities (via Zoom and other online platforms that provide access to public meetings), we must see it through.
In the coming week (and in a few cases, months) voters in communities across Vermont need to cast ballots on issues that, for some towns, are decided on the floor of town meeting. This year, because of the restrictions associated with COVID-19, towns and cities will be asked to decided about spending and local issues via Australian Ballot. And we would encourage voters to do so. Wholeheartedly.
And while we respect the time-honored tradition of Town Meeting Day across Vermont, we throw support behind efforts to make sure every Vermonter gets to decide what happens in his or her community, even if they are unable to show up to town meeting or get to the polls on Town Meeting Day.
According to a new poll released this week, Vermont voters are overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the practice of mailing a ballot to every voter, a policy that was put in place by state leaders on a temporary basis last year.
The poll, conducted by the independent firm Lincoln Park Strategies on behalf of the nonprofit organizations RepresentUs and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, found that 68% of Vermont voters want to keep vote by mail, while just 29% oppose it.
It could be a game-changer.
Vermont experienced record voter turnout in 2020 after each active registered voter was mailed a ballot at home. Approximately 75% of voters returned their ballots by mail or by depositing them in a local drop box.
“Tens of thousands of Vermonters filled out their ballot from home for the first time in 2020 to keep themselves and others safe,” said Paul Burns, executive director of VPIRG, in a news release. “The program worked so well that nearly 45,000 more Vermonters voted in the middle of a pandemic than had ever voted before. And now that they’ve seen how safe and convenient it is to have their ballot mailed to them, they’re not interested in going back to a system that makes it more difficult to vote.”
Lawmakers are getting the message, as well. According to the release, the Senate’s Government Operations Committee voted 4-1 in favor of a bill to make universally mailed ballots a permanent feature of Vermont’s general elections. Moreover, the bill (S.15) allows voters to fix or “cure” a ballot if it has been deemed defective. A common defect is when a voter fails to sign the inner security envelope when returning a ballot.
The poll found 78% of voters favor allowing small mistakes to be cured so that otherwise-valid ballots can be counted. This curing provision was not available to voters last year when nearly 1,500 ballots were not counted due to defect.
“These data indicate very strong public support in Vermont for making permanent the system of voting utilized in last year’s general election, along with at least one key improvement,” said Stefan Hankin, president of Lincoln Park Strategies. “There is no question that a large majority of Vermont voters would like to continue to receive their ballots through the mail, and they believe that all voters should be given an opportunity to fix or ‘cure’ small mistakes so the ballots can be counted.”
As the release notes, Republican lawmakers across the country have proposed a wave of new restrictions on voting. But these anti-democratic reforms have little traction in Vermont. The poll found that 92% of Vermont voters believe that it is important to make voting as easy as possible.
In the VPRIG release, Burns noted: “Vermonters are largely united in the belief that we should make voting easier, not more difficult. … We applaud Chairwoman Jeanette White, D-Windham, and the members of her Senate Government Operations committee who voted today to advance legislation that will make voting from home easier for all Vermonters.”
Voting is an act we can all do from the comfort of our own homes. And while much of the focus on this bill is on general elections, we will see it put to the test in deciding local affairs in the coming week and months.
That will be an important litmus test for Vermont. It could break us from a longstanding tradition, and move us closer to broader representation for decision-making — big and small.