On Vermont elections in an era of COVID-19

‘No voter should have to choose between their health and their right to vote. We do have a safe, secure, and accessible solution available to us.’

Many of us love going to the polls on Election Day. Joining our friends, family, and neighbors in person to participate in the civic process is something I look forward to every election year.

As Vermont's chief election official, it is my responsibility to ensure we can all safely exercise our sacred right to vote.

My office's planning for the 2020 elections during COVID-19 has been driven by two unwavering goals: preserving every Vermont voter's right to vote, and protecting the health and safety of voters, town clerks, and election workers.

This is why, right now, we have mailed a ballot to every active, registered voter. For the August primary, Vermonters responded overwhelmingly, setting a new record voter turnout. The majority of those votes were cast by mail.

With voting by mail, early in-person voting hours, and in low numbers at the polls on Election Day, the primary was conducted safely and securely.

Relying on the existing absentee ballot request process for the November general election could not yield the same result. General election turnout is typically double that of the primary. Even now, not knowing what course the virus will take in the weeks and months ahead, we cannot take any risks.

The consequences of failing to act, of high-volume turnout at cramped polling locations during cold November weather, or of voters electing to stay home are far too high.

No voter should have to choose between their health and their right to vote. We do have a safe, secure, and accessible solution available to us.

To those skeptical of voting by mail, I welcome the skepticism. We should all care deeply about the integrity of our elections. I only ask that people look to the facts and the evidence, not secondhand anecdotes, baseless claims, and rhetoric.

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Let's look at election integrity and voter fraud.

Fortunately, voter fraud is exceedingly rare. Still, we have safeguards in place to prevent it and to detect those rare cases if they happen.

For instance, Vermont has severe criminal penalties for impersonating a voter or for voting more than once. All early or by-mail ballots must be submitted in the certificate envelope, which must be signed by the voter under the penalties of perjury that they are who they say they are and that they haven't voted more than once.

Risking potential jail time to try and change an election by one vote isn't something most people would think is worth it.

However a ballot is received by the clerk, that voter is checked off the checklist as having voted. If another ballot is submitted under the same name, the clerk will know and an investigation can be triggered immediately.

Our election management system allows the clerks to see if a voter has moved; that person's voting history follows them. Again, if they try to vote more than once, the system will know, the clerks will know, and we will know.

Clerks know their voters. They will notify us of any suspicious activity, which we take incredibly seriously.

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No voter checklist in the country is free from some inaccurate data.

Our election management system, and the implementation of automatic voter registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles, has significantly improved the quality of data on the voter checklist. In fact, Vermont is considered to have one of the more accurate voter checklists in the nation.

As mailed ballots begin to arrive in voters' mailboxes, inevitably some will have been sent to voters no longer living at the address, who did not update their voter registration information since moving. You might even see friends and neighbors of yours drawing conclusions about these ballots on social media.

Those conclusions do not reflect the full picture. Let's be clear: a misdirected ballot is not proof of fraud. Fraud is when someone votes a ballot that is not their own.

As mentioned above, this is incredibly unlikely, and the maintained record of where that ballot was sent means that in the rare case when someone is suspected of committing felony fraud, it can be investigated and prosecuted.

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There is also much misplaced rhetoric about voters receiving assistance with the return of their voted ballot.

In practice, often a relative, neighbor, or friend helps a homebound voter get their voted ballot to the clerk so that their vote can be counted.

The boogeyman often brought up is droves of political operatives sweeping into our communities, going door to door to amass piles of ballots.

While that scenario is farfetched, I have ordered that for this year, candidates on the ballot or their staff members cannot collect ballots from voters. We have heard the concerns and have responded to prohibit this activity.

The town and city clerks are our election superheroes on the ground. They are sworn election officials, who take the conduct of our Vermont elections incredibly seriously. Every ballot that comes in to be counted is received by the clerk or their sworn-in election workers.

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Unlike many other states, Vermont is in a unique position to be able to conduct the November election in this safe and secure manner. Our existing vote-by-mail procedures put us in position to adapt quickly, and our track record of expert elections administration should inspire confidence.

After the 2016 general election, Vermont's election administration was ranked first in the country by the MIT Election Data and Science Lab's Election Performance Index.

The 2020 August primary showcased the resilience of Vermont voters and election workers. We should all be proud.

However you decide to cast your ballot in the November General Election this year, you should be confident in the safety, security, and integrity of the safe voting option you have chosen.

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