In the grand tradition of burying inconvenient news by way of a Friday Afternoon Newsdump, Gov. Phil Scott’s office announced on Friday — leading into the Fourth of July weekend, no less — that he would allow S.348 to become law without his signature.
For those keeping score at home, S.348 is the bill allowing the Secretary of State to create a vote-by-mail system for this year’s November elections, due to public health concerns around the Covid-19 pandemic.
Scott’s letter to the General Assembly, attached below, refers to “a technical flaw” in the bill that caused him to withhold his signature. It would be interesting to know if he ever communicated his concern to anyone in the Legislature in a timely manner, or if he waited to spring this until it was too late to fix the bill.
Well, the Friday newsdump worked like a charm. As far as Google can tell, there’s been no actual news coverage of his inaction — besides the Vermont Business Journal’s dutiful posting of Scott’s press release.
Thus endeth the curious case of Phil Scott And The Red-Hot Potato.
Throughout this weird little saga, Scott has consistently acted as though he wanted absolutely nothing to do with S. 348. Earlier this session, the Legislature passed a bill that provided for a mail-in election if the Secretary of State and the Governor agreed that it was necessary.
When Secretary Jim Condos started agitating for a decision, Scott slow-played it, saying that he thought we could wait until after the August primary to make the call. Which was patently ridiculous and more than a little demeaning to Condos’ integrity. Condos, after all, made a strong case for making the decision this spring. Scott continued to balk, without providing much of a tangible reason for doing so.
At the same time, he invited the Legislature to take him entirely out of it. After a fruitless series of back-and-forths between Scott and Condos, the Legislature did so — passing S.348 and sending it on to the governor.
There is a simple interpretation to Scott’s Pontius Pilate act. Sadly, it’s entirely political. Now I know that the governor eschews politics at every opportunity, but here it is:
In his two previous gubernatorial campaigns, Scott has had the luxury of support from the Republican Governors Association. In 2016, the RGA spent big to get him elected. In 2018 the RGA didn’t have to, because the Democratic field was weak and the nominee, Christine Hallquist, got a late start, had no name recognition and little money. In both years, Scott barely had to raise or spend money on his own.
This year the RGA stands ready to pour millions into Vermont if needed. But ballot security has become a big Republican talking point.
Is it farfetched to make the obvious connection — that Scott has no real beef with vote-by-mail, but he doesn’t want to directly oppose the RGA on a key issue? I don’t think it’s farfetched at all.
In fact, Occam’s Razor. It’s the simplest explanation for Scott’s ditherings on the issue.
Note: I have reached out to Scott’s office for an explanation of the “technical flaw.” This post will be updated if I hear back.
UPDATE. Scott’s office hasn’t responded to my inquiry, but I did hear from the Secretary of State’s office. According to Deputy Secretary Chris Winters, the office “respectfully disagree[s]” with the governor’s claim of a technical flaw. Winters continued:
In his letter, the Governor characterized the orphaned and inoperable language left over from a failed amendment as adding ambiguity to the Secretary of State’s authority around return of ballots.- We disagree, and so did the Legislature, after receiving legal advice from Legislative Council. It has no effect whatsoever on the bill., or the Secretary’s authority.
Act 92 provided the Secretary of State, in agreement with the Governor, the authority to modify election procedures as deemed necessary in 2020 in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. After a stalemate between the Governor and Secretary of State and with time running short to make decisions for the 2020 elections, the Legislature ultimately decided to remove the Governor from the agreement process, leaving everything else about the temporary law the same.
There were many attempts to amend this bill, even though the exact same language had just passed the Legislature in March. One amendment with three parts proposed was then broken into three individual amendments considered separately. Only one of the three was adopted, and that one referred to one of the other two pieces, an amendment to 17 V.S.A. § 2543 (return of ballots) that was not adopted, resulting in a reference to a section of the bill that does not exist. As a result, that reference is inoperable and the unamended, existing law in 17 V.S.A. § 2543 still applies.
This orphaned language in the bill is of no consequence.
And now, here’s the governor’s letter to the Legislature.