Rep. James: Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Vote By Mail 2020

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Wisconsin held its presidential primary on April 7, 2020. The event drew national attention not so much because of the outcome — former Vice President Joe Biden walloped Sen. Bernie Sanders 63 percent to 32 percent, and Bernie dropped out the next day — but because of how the election was held.

Against a bitter partisan backdrop, and in a state where voting by mail is uncommon, many Wisconsin citizens waited in line for hours — standing in close quarters at crowded polls — to cast a ballot during the coronavirus pandemic. They were forced to choose between their right to vote and protecting their own health and the health of others. The Wisconsin Health Department is now reporting that at least 40 voters and poll workers have tested positive for COVID-19.

Vermonters won't have to make that terrible choice. On March 25, the House of Representatives passed H.681, an act that gave the Secretary of State temporary authority to change the way we hold elections during the COVID-19 emergency. After passage by the Senate, Governor Scott signed the bill into law as Act 92 on March 30. Secretary of State Jim Condos and his team are now actively exploring options for the August primary and November general elections and will make an announcement soon (possibly even before this column is published). One way or another, Secretary Condos is sure to expand Vermont's existing early and absentee voting system. It's a safe and secure process that allows any registered voter to cast a ballot by mail. In the 2016 and 2018 general elections, about 30 percent of Vermonters voted this way. The Secretary could choose to pre-emptively mail a ballot to every registered voter in the state, or simply encourage mail-in voting through a public-awareness campaign. Either way, the polls will be open on election days — in some safe, modified way — for people who can't be reached by mail, or for those who need assistance to vote.

I've voted early before — during the established 45-day window that precedes every election — but I always did that in person, at the Manchester town clerk's office. I wanted to test the process that Vermonters can use to request a mail-in ballot online, so yesterday I hopped onto the Secretary of

State's website.

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Start at "My Voter Page" (https://mvp.vermont.gov/). You'll see two green buttons where you can confirm that you're registered to vote — and register, if 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. Or you can request a mail-in ballot by emailing or calling your town clerk.Once you log in, you'll see your own voter page. It's packed with information, including how to contact your town clerk, your polling location and upcoming election dates — Vermont's primary is August 11 and the national general election is November 3. Most important, you should confirm or update your mailing address and submit your request for an absentee ballot. The request will be sent to your town clerk, who will mail your ballot when it's ready. Just to be sure, I wrote to Manchester town clerk Anita Sheldon about three seconds after I hit "submit" on the Secretary of State's My Voter Page. "Hey, I just requested a mail-in ballot for the August primary!" Anita had already received it.

In testimony before the House Government Operations Committee on April 15, Will Senning, Director of Elections and Campaign Finance for the Secretary of State's office, explained that ballots for the August primary will be delivered to town clerks by June 19, who will mail them to local

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voters by late June or early July. The return postage will be pre-paid using funds from the federal CARES Act.

Across the country, 26 percent of ballots were cast by mail in 2018, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. And five states — Hawaii, Utah, Oregon, Washington and Colorado — will conduct their upcoming 2020 elections entirely by mail. Though it's sometimes raised as a concern, fraud rates remain "infinitesimally small," reports the Center. Since 2000, for example, Oregon has sent more than 100 million mail-in ballots and documented only a dozen cases of fraud. And because vote-by-mail is long-established in Vermont, the Secretary of State has security procedures up and running.

"We have no idea what this pandemic will look like as we approach the August statewide primaries and November general election," wrote Sec. Condos in a late April op-ed, describing the likely "significant" shift to mail-in voting that his office will 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."

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For my part, I'm voting early by mail. I encourage you to join me. You can update your voting page and submit your ballot request at any time. Log onto mvp.vermont.gov to get started.

Kathleen James represents Manchester, Arlington, Sunderland and Sandgate in the Vermont House of Representatives. You can reach her by email (KJames@leg.state.vt.us), follow her on Facebook (Kathleen James VT State Representative)

or learn more at her website:

kathjamesforstaterep.com.


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