The House Committee on Government Operations on Wednesday discussed who should testify on a bill that would make permanent changes to Vermont’s election system — including adoption of a universal vote-by-mail system that sends live ballots to everyone on Vermont’s voter checklist.
During the morning meeting, one representative suggested having New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, a Democrat, testify on S.15. Gardner, the longest-serving secretary of state in the nation, has defended the Granite State’s election security measures, such as no early voting and limited use of absentee ballots.
“We’ve been comparing a lot of our work to what they do [in New Hampshire],” said Rep. Samantha Lefebvre, R-Orange, who suggested Gardner. “And [we should] just have his perspective on it … to see what they’ve learned.”
Gardner is at odds with Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos when it comes to his views on mail-in voting, voter ID and other election policies. When testifying on Capitol Hill earlier in April, Gardner said federal election bill HR.1 that seeks to mandate the use of mail-in ballots nationwide “will damage voter confidence” and ultimately “lower voter turnout.”
Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, said getting any secretary of state to come before the committee would be a challenge. “It may be a bit of a challenge to find a secretary of state to come and testify to us,” she said.
Committee members are reviewing S.15, which would make permanent the widespread mail-in voting used in 2020. That one-time use of universal vote-by-mail was permitted as a way to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
Throughout the committee meeting, the discussion often prioritized accessibility to voting. Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Essex, said she wants to hear from voter rights groups to “offer some insight into how we can make this process the most accessible and create supports needed for access.”
In addition to expanding the mail-in ballots, S.15 allows for outdoor polling places and drop-boxes, early processing of absentee ballots, fixing defective ballots, and other rules regarding mail-in ballots.
Lefebvre, one of two Republicans in the committee, recently told TNR that S.15 would permit the state to sent out ballots “not knowing who’s actually going to end up getting it.”
She also said Vermont has few safeguards in place to protect against voter fraud.
The bill does include the prohibition of a candidate or paid staff member from returning someone else’s ballot. City and town clerks “shall report any suspected violations to the Secretary of State’s office, who shall refer them to the Attorney General’s office for investigation.”
Rep. Mark Higley, R-Lowell, said he’s not impressed with those enforcement mechanisms.
“I don’t know that I need to hear from anybody, but I’m not convinced that we shouldn’t have more restrictions in this regard,” he said.
Higley cited an incident at a city council meeting when some individuals interfered with the phone signal to disrupt a councilwoman’s ability to speak. He suggested if political activists would go so far to silence opposition, other activists would scheme to commit election fraud.
“When I hear something like that it makes me think why wouldn’t a group such as that or whoever they are, if they are willing to thwart an elected representative’s ability to speak, I have concerns about what it would take in a general election or other election,” he said.
Copeland Hanzas expressed skepticism that signature matching should be mandated for the use of mail-in ballots.
“If I’m sitting at a desk maybe signing off on my bank mortgage my signature looks one way but if I’m standing at the counter at the DMV, my signature looks a little bit different,” she said.
Vermont’s commitment to mail-in voting comes as public confidence in federal elections is at a historic low following the 2020 presidential election. At least half of Republicans do not trust the election results, according to a poll by four Boston area universities.