Mailed Ballots: A Study in Legislative Timidity

A couple of weeks ago, the Senate Government Operations Committee approved S.15, a bill that would mandate mail-in ballots for November elections. On Wednesday, the panel was presented with an opportunity to make the mandate universal, applying to general elections, primaries, and Town Meeting Day.

(The only exception: Communities that hold actual town meetings would be exempt. Towns that use the Australian ballot for TMD questions would have to provide mail service to all voters.)

And the committee couldn’t back away fast enough. Members used every delaying tactic in the book, from straw-man punching to red herrings to gross exaggeration. It was so sad that the panel even balked at the last refuge of legislative delay, appointing a study committee!

Now, there was a bit of political gamesmanship involved on the part of Republican Sen. Corey Parent, who offered the amendment to S.15. If he was completely serious about the idea, he could have proposed it sooner. The deadline for policy bills to pass the Senate is this Friday, and it’s a stretch to think his amendment could get due consideration in Gov Ops and on the Senate floor.

But he did have a serious point, and I have to say I agree with him.

The idea behind mail-in balloting is to make it simpler for people to vote. It worked like a charm last November, when Vermont set a new record for turnout.

Parent offered statistics from his district that further proved the point. He said that the town of St. Albans and the city of St. Albans have similarly-sized electorates — about 5,100 registered voters in each. On Town Meeting Day, 827 city voters cast ballots. Town turnout was 1,880, more than twice as many. The only difference between the two: The town mailed ballots to all its voters, and the city did not. That’s a compelling set of statistics.

If the goal is to boost participation, the current version of S.15 kind of has it backwards. Far fewer voters cast ballots on Town Meeting Day and in primary elections than in general elections. The move from September primaries to August, which happened in response to federal ballot deadlines, was opposed by many who feared that vacations and summer activities would depress turnout.

And Vermonters have been obsessed about sagging participation in Town Meeting Day for decades. Why not make mailed ballots universal, so the mandate has the most impact?

Most members tripped over themselves and, in some cases, the English language, in trying to make arguments against the Parent amendment. There were some legitimate problems, timing being the chief among them, but the issues were greatly exaggerated by opponents of Parent’s proposal. Including, kind of sad to say, the Secretary of State’s office and VPIRG executive director Paul Burns.

(Burns implied that his opposition to the Parent amendment is rooted in the desire to get S.15 in its current form across the finish line. “I want to express interest in what Sen. Parent has put on the table,” he said. “It’s worthy of consideration. We would not support putting it into this bill.”)

Multiple people brought up the fear of lower participation in Town Meeting, one of our favorite binkies of Vermont exceptionalism. Would Town Meeting be devastated, or doomed to extinction, if people could vote by mail? Parent noted that only communities that offer Australian ballots would be covered by the mandate. Town Meeting communities could carry on with sacred tradition.

Committee chair Jeanette White brandished a straw man in response. Some towns, including her community of Putney, offer Australian ballots for elective offices but decide budget and spending issues in Town Meeting. “Would people in Putney be confused?” she said.

Republican Sen. Brian Collamore had a handy counter. “Towns could include information on Town Meeting issues in the mailed ballots,” he said. (Collamore was also playing a bit of gamesmanship here. He was the only Gov Ops member to vote “No” on S.15. He’s had a change of heart since then; he now favors universal mail balloting.)

White also expressed an overriding concern with local control. “My goal is always to give towns more flexibility than less,” she said. In truth, “local control” is largely a myth in Vermont, and White knows that. Mail-in balloting seems an unlikely place for her to plant this particular flag.

In a bit of strange bedfellows, committee member Sen. Kesha Ram joined Collamore in supporting Parent’s amendment. White and committee vice chair Alison Clarkson were opposed. The fifth member, Sen. Anthony Pollina, expressed support for the concept, but worried about the diminution of Town Meeting. Which again, Parent’s amendment would not apply to pure Town Meeting communities.

It was clear the amendment would fail in committee. Parent then offered an alternative: Create a study committee to look at how mail-in voting affects turnout.

Usually, study committees are eagerly embraced by lawmakers looking to avoid an actual decision. But this time, a study committee was apparently too radical a step. White worried about the makeup of the panel, and wondered if all concerned parties would have a chance to weigh in. That’s kind of a red herring; the committee has a darn good idea of which parties should be on such a study committee. They don’t really need a parade of witnesses claiming a seat at the table.

Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters raised objections to both Parent amendments, saying that the office is too busy (or understaffed, hint hint) to take part in a study committee — at least until after the 2022 elections.

Wow. Aren’t you afraid you’ll get whiplash from such a rash of activity?

A majority of the committee seemed determined to inflate the remit of a study committee. White and Clarkson talked up a study of all issues surrounding Town Meeting Day. Could be a good idea, but broadening a committee’s charge is a sure way of diluting its impact. If a panel simply looked at turnout, it would almost certainly conclude that mailed ballots have a strong and positive impact. That conclusion would be hard to deny, even for the shrinking violets of Senate Gov Ops.

But a committee that starts in 2022 and spends a year or two on an all-inclusive study of Town Meeting? Any finding on mailed ballots would be lost in a blizzard of issues and opinions and recommendations.

In acknowledging that his original amendment would fail, Parent emphasized the need to keep the ball rolling on mailed ballots. He worried that a stand-alone S.15 would eliminate the momentum for universal mailed ballots. Given the tenor of the committee discussion, I have to think he’s right.

2 thoughts on “Mailed Ballots: A Study in Legislative Timidity

  1. Rama Schneider

    Holy shit. You’re buying into the stall and delay tactics. The questions regarding voting in November elections are very much NOT the same questions that will need to be resolved for town meeting or other local elections. Parent knows this, you know this, I know this … it’s obvious.

    The idea of universal mail-in voting is good and it is sound. But the rules of how to apply such a principal to local elections need to be discussed first.

    Reply

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