By Guy Page
Sen. Melanie Levesque, a New Hampshire state senator and sponsor of an automatic voter registration bill, other Granite State lawmakers, and Secretary of State Bill Gardner met in Montpelier yesterday with Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, his staff, Montpelier City Clerk John Odom, and Vermont House Government Operations Chair Sarah Copeland-Hanzas to learn how to pass and operate Automatic Voter Registration (AVR).
The Vermont Legislature approved AVR in 2016 with just a single “no” vote. It automatically registers to vote any driver’s license (both first time or renewal) applicant of age, unless the applicant consciously chooses to “opt out.” The registration is then forwarded to the town office where the applicant resides, and it’s up to local election officials to verify the information and add the new voter to the checklist.
The New Hampshire bill is in study committee now, and may be voted on this coming session. It enjoys support from the NH Democratic majority in both House and Senate, but many Republicans say registration should require a conscious decision. Gov. Chris Sununu in 2018 signed a residency voter bill that Republicans support and Democrats don’t.
Condos said success in passing AVR requires:
– Strong support and buy in from DMV. For example, VT DMV needed to know it wouldn’t be asked to register noncitizens getting driver’s privilege cards.
– Legislative committee buy in, which Condos said was based on their trust that SOS office would administer the law in a nonpartisan way.
– having good answers for basic questions. People concerned about noncitizens voting were assured SOS would not send cities and towns any potential voters who didn’t check “yes” on citizenship question. Noncitizens who inadvertently check “yes” would be shielded from prosecution. Everyone was assured the final decision to add names to the checklist is up to the municipality.
Condos and staff spent considerable time explaining the mechanism and advantages of requiring driver’s license applicants to “opt out” rather than “opt in.” The path of least resistance results in voter registration.
Presented in wholly nonpartisan terms, “opt out” was presented as an easy to accomplish but very effectual policy, “a no-brainer,” Condos said.
SOS figures show 30,626 new Vermont voters were registered by AVR since January 1 through June 30 2018, with little added workload to the SOS office. However the law did make more work for DMV, Condos said.
AVR raises troublesome possibilities for voter theft, Rob Roper of the Vermont Ethan Allen Institute replied today to an inquiry from Headliners:
“AVR is not a good idea because each of us is ultimately responsible for our own vote. We each get one. It is not transferable. Hopefully we use it as that is our first responsibility. However, if we don’t it is our responsibility to make sure nobody else can or does.
“What AVR does is put potential votes into the system for people who are unaware that they are registered to vote, thus making their vote particularly vulnerable to theft. The real danger we face from voter fraud is not someone showing up at the polls claiming to be someone they are not. The real danger comes from powerful entities using deep data to determine who is registered to vote but doesn’t vote, then obtaining absentee ballots for those people, and voting on their behalf without the real voter ever knowing or perhaps caring.
“Jim Condos has been working very hard to make it easy for powerful forces to cheat, more likely that their fraud will impact elections, and nearly impossible for them to get caught. AVR is part of that strategy.”
Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.