This commentary is by Scott Weathers of Stowe, chair of the Lamoille County Democrats. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Vox and other outlets. He holds a master of science from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Voting rights activist Stacey Abrams has argued that in 2020, our democracy “faced a near-death experience” and barely survived. Indeed, many of our elected officials seek to deprive Americans — particularly Black, brown and Indigenous people — of their right to vote.
Make no mistake, our right to the vote is under attack. Already, predominantly Republican legislatures across the country have proposed bills that would drastically roll back voting rights. In many cases, state legislators aren’t even bothering to disguise the goal of these bills, which intend to make it easier for Republicans to win elections. Last month, in Georgia, a GOP Chair of the board of elections said, “I will not let them end this [legislative] session without changing some of these laws. … They’ve got to change the major parts of them so that we at least have a shot at winning.”
In the most extreme case, an Arizona bill would permit the state’s legislature to overturn how Arizonans vote for president, just as Donald Trump desperately wanted states to do. Yup, you read that right — if passed, Arizona’s electoral college votes could go to a presidential candidate that voters rejected.
Unfortunately, Vermont’s GOP is no different from national Republicans on this issue. Vermont’s GOP chairwoman has proposed drastic curtailments to voting access, including voter ID requirements, earlier deadlines for absentee ballots, and much more.
Despite the GOP’s efforts, the Green Mountain State is at the forefront of not just preserving but expanding the accountability and representativeness of Vermont’s elected officials.
Secretary of State Jim Condos has led the charge to mail ballots to every active registered voter. Condos’ leadership in implementing this ambitious project succeeded amidst a tumultuous year. Just in the last year, Condos ran a seamless pilot of universal vote-by-mail that earned widespread and national praise, corrected a Supreme Court justice, rebuffed a partisan court challenge, and even endured death threats. Even before this year, when voting rights have taken on renewed focus, Condos’ office had turned away Russian hackers and implemented an automatic voter registration system to massive success.
This legislative session, Vermont has the opportunity to lead the United States and model what representative democracy looks like. Vermont’s Legislature should make Condos’ bold vote-by-mail reform permanent.
Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint has voiced support for the idea, as long as voters are still able to vote in-person. Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters said in the Senate Government Operations Committee, “Bottom line is that people liked it. People liked it a lot.”
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Condos says that running the 2020 primary and general elections cost $3 million, inclusive of everything. The cost of mailing ballots to all registered voters hasn’t been made public yet, but it is a fraction of that number. Whatever the fraction, this is a small price to pay to drastically increase Vermonters’ ability to vote.
Voter turnout last year broke our state’s record, previously set in 2008. Although it’s hard to say how much of this can be tied to vote-by-mail, rather than a desire to elect someone new to the White House, vote-by-mail has likely boosted turnout in non-presidential elections in Vermont too. Further study could help us understand how much vote-by-mail helps in Vermont, but the scholarly consensus is clear: Universal vote-by-mail increases voter turnout.
What, then, could stop us from enacting this common-sense reform?
Republican concerns that vote-by-mail is a power grab by Democrats are unfounded. Extensive research has concluded that universal vote-by-mail does not affect partisan vote share or partisan turnout. Even during the roll-out of vote-by-mail in Vermont this past year, Republicans kept the Governor’s mansion and picked up three seats in the statehouse.
Conservative advocates in Vermont and nationwide haven’t stopped spouting false allegations of voter fraud. But research has consistently concluded that expanding access to mailed ballots does not increase voter fraud. Although 45% of Republicans believe that voter fraud is a major problem, researchers and election officials have repeatedly made clear that voter fraud is extremely rare in the U.S.
Vermont has an opportunity to lead the nation in expanding access to our constitutional right to vote if our Legislature chooses to take bold, decisive action. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Elections belong to the people.” But voters can’t control their own destiny if they have to trudge through weather, accidents, illness and pandemics whenever they want to vote.
Let’s get to work. The future of our democracy depends on it.