We’ve just lived through a spring we could never have imagined a few short months ago, and as we prepare for a summer that will also be unique in our experience, it is important for us to remember we are also heading into an election cycle.
In less than six months, we’ll have a national general election. Just as we have adapted to stay safe in this time of pandemic, the way we hold elections needs to adapt to protect the safety of voters and poll workers and ensure all registered voters have the opportunity to safely cast their ballots this fall.
The rate of new coronavirus cases has been dropping in Vermont, but there is no assurance of what will happen in the fall. Because we don’t have a crystal ball, we need to prepare now to be sure all Vermonters can safely vote by mail.
While it might seem as if six months is a long way away, the clock is ticking. Holding a free and fair election with universal access to the polls may be something we take for granted, but we cannot afford that luxury in 2020. Elections take time to plan, ballots need to be printed and distributed, poll workers must be trained, and towns must meet certain dated benchmarks to be sure an election comes off without a hitch. We can take the approach we always have, but imagine a very large and serious surge in coronavirus cases in mid-September, or imagine the virus mutates and becomes more deadly or more debilitating. By September, it would be too late to change the plan, and the election would need to be canceled, postponed or be held with all of the dire public health implications. Vermont is one of the grayest states in the nation, and our poll workers tend to be older Vermonters, who have the time and commitment to keep our democracy functioning, but they are very clearly at risk.
You may remember Wisconsin held its presidential primary on April 7. The event drew national attention not so much for the outcome, but rather how the election was held in the early days of the pandemic. In Wisconsin, where voting by mail is rare, many Wisconsinites waited in line for hours, standing close to each other at crowded polls, to cast a ballot during the coronavirus pandemic. We don’t need to do that here in Vermont.
On March 25, the House of Representatives passed H.681, an act that gave the secretary of state — in consultation with the governor — temporary authority to change the way we hold elections during the COVID-19 emergency. After passage by the Senate, Gov. Phil Scott signed the bill into law as Act 92 on March 30.
We don’t need to force voters to make a choice between their right to vote and protecting their own health and the health of others. Secretary of State Jim Condos has presented a plan to hold the November general election entirely by mail-in ballot, a plan that while new, would protect an irreplaceable part of our democracy, as well as public heath. In the meantime, for the imminent primary election in August, you can simply request an absentee ballot from your town clerk or the secretary of state’s website and vote by mail up to 45 days before each election.
To order a ballot from the secretary of state’s website, start at “My Voter Page” (mvp.vermont.gov). You’ll see two green buttons where you can confirm you’re registered to vote or register to vote, if you are not. Then you can sign in with your first name, last name, town of residence, birthday and driver’s license number, or the last four digits of your Social Security number. Once you log in, you’ll see your personal voter page. It’s got lots of helpful information, including how to contact your town clerk, your polling location and upcoming election dates — Vermont’s primary is Aug. 11 and the national general election is Nov. 3. And you can confirm or update your mailing address and submit your request for an absentee ballot. You can request a ballot for the August primary and the November general election at the same time. The request will be sent to your local town clerk, who will mail your ballot to you when it’s ready. Then vote your ballot and mail the ballot back to your town clerk for counting at election time.
“We have no idea what this pandemic will look like as we approach the August statewide primaries and November general election,” Condos wrote in a late-April commentary, describing the shift to mail-in voting his office will likely oversee. “No solution is a silver bullet. But regardless of the steps we take … our democracy must continue to thrive. We won’t settle for anything less than safe, secure and accessible Vermont elections this year.”
We know we can do just that, but the clock is ticking.
Carl Demrow is House Representative from Orange 1.