On Friday the Vermont Senate approved changes to a bill dealing with election laws, including online voting among other provisions.
During the morning session, Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, introduced the bill, H.429, to the Senate floor. Senators passed the latest amendments to the bill with a 17-13 vote.
“H. 429 is a miscellaneous elections bill — it includes a lot of provisions that will make our elections fairer, more transparent, and more efficient to administer, and will provide some important access to voting for some very specific voters who have a hard time voting in Vermont,” Hardy said.
Hardy noted that senators had been hearing from constituents about a provision of the bill called “secure limited electronic ballot return.” She said it applies to a “narrowly defined group of Vermont voters,” namely voters who are overseas and people who have disabilities.
“I know that many of us have heard a lot on this issue,” she said. “Most of them are people who are in our military, people who have been deployed overseas.”
Hardy mentioned blind people as a sector of society that could benefit from such voting.
She added that 31 other U.S. states are already doing electronic ballot returns, and said Elections Director Will Senning and former Secretary of State Jim Condos are strong supporters of online electronic ballot returns.
Hardy said a group called Free Speech for People was against the online voting, and also noted that written testimony from cybersecurity experts was mixed.
Ranked choice voting for presidential primary elections
The bill also would allow voters in local communities to have ranked-choice voting.
With ranked-choice voting, if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, candidates with the fewest votes drop out of count and those votes get redistributed and re-tallied to a voter’s second-choice candidate, to see if someone then wins a majority of votes. The system has been criticized as convoluted and potentially undermining voter intent.
In testimony earlier this year, Senning told lawmakers that when ranked-choice voting is implemented, both paper and electronic formats must be physically gathered and transported from clerks’ offices to to a central location in the state.
The Sore Loser provision
Another aspect of the bill pertains to candidates who lose primaries but attempt to run in the general election under a different party affiliation.
“In no event shall a candidate who loses a major party primary be nominated to appear on the general election ballot pursuant to this subchapter by a committee of any party other than the party for which the candidate appeared on the primary ballot,” the bill language states.
Hardy said 36 other states have such laws implemented already. However, opponents expressed that the provision could limit the number of candidate choices Vermonters get in the general election.
Candidate financial disclosures
The bill includes a financial disclosure provision that imposes penalties if a candidate for office doesn’t file a financial disclosure.
“We are required under current law to file a financial disclosure provision, that financial disclosure provision,” Hardy said. “If a candidate fails to file it, there are no sort of penalties involved right now.”
H.429 will expand this requirement for those running for county offices, which would include sheriffs, state attorneys, assistant judges, probate judges, and high bailiffs. Penalties could be $10 per day, with a limit of $1,000.
Concerning write-in candidates for county, state, and federal elections — not local elections — this part of the bill would “say unless you registered as a write-in candidate 10 days prior to the election, the clerks don’t have to individually count,” Hardy said.
It also makes some changes regarding what write-in candidates must achieve in the primaries in order to advance.
“It also increases the threshold for a write-in candidate to win a primary to be greater than 10% of the votes cast or the number of signatures required to run,” she said.
Another part permits candidates in statewide elections to donate up to $20,000 to a political party. She said that current law permits up to $10,000 from any single source.
Friday’s Senate session can be viewed online here.
A one-sided bill?
Sen. Irene Wrenner, D-Chittenden-North, suggested the bill has lacked bipartisan support thus far.
“Speaking of the House, this bill only passed with single-party support with many Democrats voting against it, and others only supporting it after a significant amount of pressure from Democratic leadership,” she said.
“In other states, we see parties with supermajorities or parties who have control over both chambers and the governor’s office able to pass election laws without bipartisan support, I would hate for us to do that now.”