By XANDER LANDEN, VT Digger
MONTPELIER/BRANDON — The number of absentee ballot requests for Vermont’s August primary has continued to rise, with the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office reporting more than 108,700 sought so far — a larger number than the total ballot count during the last statewide primary in 2018.
In total, 107,600 Vermonters voted in August of 2018.
Vermonters also have the option of showing up at the polls on primary day, as well as the general election in November.
But early data suggests that the state’s mail-in ballot system is highly popular among voters during the COVID-19 crisis.
“We expected that we were going to see increased numbers of voters this year,” Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, a Democrat, told reporters on Monday. “I think part of that is driven by the political situation we’re in, but I think also part of it is the pandemic,” he said, referring to President Donald Trump’s controversial policies as well as contested primary races in Vermont for lieutenant governor and governor that increase turnout.
Voters must request absentee ballots until the day before the Aug. 11 primary, but the Secretary of State’s Office is urging voters to make their request earlier to be sure voters have time to review and return their ballot. The office recently sent out postcards to registered voters that they can send back free of charge to request a returnable absentee ballot.
In Brandon, Town Clerk Sue Gage said there have been 806 requests for absentee ballots as of Monday. She said for 2016 and 2018, there was a total voter turnout of about 750 with an average of 10-14 percent of those ballots being absentee.
The general election in November will be an easier process to vote by mail. The Secretary of State’s Office is implementing a plan to automatically send every registered voter in the state a mail-in ballot this fall.
Lawmakers gave Condos the flexibility to move forward with this plan earlier this year, and removed Gov. Phil Scott’s authority over the decision.
Scott and Condos couldn’t agree on a plan for the universal mail-in voting system.
The governor wanted to wait until after August to determine whether it was necessary to put one in place for the November election, and have an independent committee make the final decision.
Condos and Democrats championed the universal mail-in ballot system as a necessary public health measure and wanted to put the plan in place right away.
Condos said that reducing poll traffic in November is an important measure for curbing the spread of the virus, and that given the increasing levels of COVID-19 in other states “we can take no chances.”
“We want to reduce that traffic to a volume that allows for proper social distancing, and other health interventions to be observed at the polling place, and for the safety of our town clerks and election workers who are staffing those polls,” Condos said Monday.
Matthew Dickinson, a professor of political science at Middlebury College, said he believes the popularity of absentee ballots stem from both the pandemic and the Secretary of State Office’s efforts to publicize them through postcards and other means.
“I just think it’s driven by COVID, but the heavy publicity associated with that has really prompted a lot of people to get those absentee ballots requests,” Dickinson said.
He added that a record number of absentee ballots being requested doesn’t necessarily mean they will all be returned.
Dickinson pointed to a study in the American Journal of Political Science that found that states with early voting options actually saw slightly less turnout than those without them. He noted that early voting isn’t the same as mail-in voting, but called the two options “parallel ideas.”
“People will request ballots early on, or will pick up ballots, and then, because there’s not that buzz that you would get on election day in the traditional way of everybody’s voting at the same time, they just forget about it,” he said.
Officials at the Secretary of State’s Office said that before the ballots are mailed out, they will be working with local elections officials to clean up the state’s voter checklist.
During the legislative session, some Republicans raised concerns that the universal mail-in voting system could result in ballots sent to dead voters or those that have moved away, and that the practice opened the potential for voter fraud.
Sending out the first round of postcards has helped the state and municipalities find voters who are no longer active.
“We get emails constantly every day now over the last two weeks, since they went out, about, you know, ‘This went to my sister, she moved away two or three years ago. Can you remove her from the checklist?’” said Will Senning, Vermont’s director of elections.
Reporter Lee Kahrs contributed to this reporter