BARRE TOWN — Officials here are trying to sort out how to hold Barre Town’s annual election in the middle of a pandemic.
Unlike many other municipalities in the state, Barre Town does not hold its annual meeting on Town Meeting Day, the first Tuesday of March. Instead, the town holds its meeting the second Tuesday of May.
Local officials have said they prefer the May meeting because it’s easier to plan out a budget that would go into effect when the new fiscal year starts July 1.
This year it appears a March meeting would have been preferable because the state, and the rest of the world, is now dealing with the novel coronavirus pandemic. People have been told by Gov. Phil Scott to stay home as much as possible to help stop the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.
Putting off the election until the pandemic is over is not an option because the town’s charter dictates the election “shall,” meaning has to, be held the second Tuesday in May.
Town Clerk Donna Kelty said the Select Board is considering conducting the entire election by mail. Kelty said she’s been in contact with Will Senning, director of elections and campaign finance at the Vermont Secretary of State’s office, to see what the town can do.
“Normally our polling place is, of course, at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School. But with the school being closed and with (the governor’s) order, we couldn’t congregate there pretty much anyway,” she said.
The situation is fluid because there are lots of unknowns due to this being unprecedented territory. Some of the uncertainty has been cleared up by emergency legislation passed by lawmakers that was awaiting Scott’s signature as of Thursday afternoon. The bill, which would only apply to 2020, would remove requiring collecting signatures in order to have a candidate’s name placed on the ballot.
Senning said the bill also gives authority to the Secretary of State’s office, if Scott agrees, the ability to implement election procedures, such as holding an election entirely by mail, in the interest of public safety. So the town would need to get approval from the state to hold such an election.
How an election like that would take place is still up in the air. Senning said areas that hold such elections, where there is no polling place to cast a ballot, typically mail a ballot to every registered voter. He said there’s a middle ground where there is no polling place, but voters would need to request a ballot.
He said there could still be a polling place where ballots are cast, but there would need to be proper social distancing. Senning said potentially lengthening the time people have to cast ballots to days instead of hours is also being discussed.
“But what’s nice is that our office and the governor have been given the flexibility with this bill to implement some new processes,” he said.
Senning said his advice to any municipality that has an election coming up and isn’t required to hold it is to postpone the vote and push it back as far as possible. But he acknowledged that can be a challenge when a budget may need to be approved before June 30, the end of the fiscal year. Barre Town’s vote must go forward.
Kelty said the plan is to approve the warning at the Select Board’s next regular meeting March 31. Then the town will request to have the vote held by mail.
She said local officials are looking into what information is to be included in the ballot and how the ballots are to be returned to the town. Kelty said normally the ballots are deposited and opened in public at the polling place.
“The thought is maybe we live stream something. We say during such and such an hour we’re going to be doing this and we’re going to be live streaming so people can watch the process,” she said.
Kelty said another issue is same-day voter registration. Another task that occurs at the polling place.
“Everything is in its infancy and we’re just trying to figure out the best scenario on how to operate such an animal,” she said.
Kelty said she doesn’t want this election to be invalidated because something crucial was missed.