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Early data shows Vermont broke primary turnout records

  • An election worker guides voters at the front door of Danville’s Town Hall on Tuesday. Photo by Justin Trombly/VTDigger

Published: 8/13/2020 10:25:20 PM
Modified: 8/13/2020 10:25:10 PM

Tuesday night’s primary election participation has set a new record for Vermont.

According to unofficial turnout numbers the morning after the election, 157,193 Vermonters cast ballots for yesterday’s election. That far exceeds the previous record-breaking primary in 2016, when about 120,000 ballots were cast.

Secretary of State Jim Condos said in an interview Wednesday morning that the count would likely go up in the following days as town clerks finalize their participation records.

“It’s very exciting,” Condos said of the numbers. “It’s great to see that people are exercising their right to vote.”

Historically, he said, towns report about 20% to 25% participation of their registered voters for primary elections. As of the turnout records so far, most towns show 30% to 40% participation. A few reached the 50% and above mark.

Condos did not have an exact figure on how many absentee ballots were returned because clerks are still sending in participation records. As of early Tuesday morning, he said, his office had received data that about 114,000 absentee ballots had been accounted for.

And his prediction that the election results would roll in on time, despite record-breaking absentee ballots, also materialized. Condos said he heard from town clerks that Vermonters adapted to the social distancing procedures easily, which allowed for a timely processing of ballots.

Some made the most of the drive-thru voting sites that were designed to limit contact. At one drive-thru polling place in Dorset, some Vermonters voted via horseback.

“We want to have smooth-sailing elections,” Condos said, “with no problems and clear winners. And that makes it an ideal situation for all of us.”

Condos attributed the high turnout to the pandemic, leading to a large volume of requests and returns of absentee ballots. Contested statewide races on both the Democratic and Republican ballots also likely drove participation, he said.

And because civic engagement was so high for this primary, it caused some town clerks to wonder if the mail-in voting system for the primary should be adopted post-pandemic.

Sarah Mason, the town clerk for Milton, said her voter turnout was much higher than past years. Typically, for a primary race, votes don’t exceed more than 2,000 in her town. This year, as of midday Tuesday, Mason said Milton had received 2,700 absentee ballots and had seen at least 500 walk-in voters.

“That’s unheard of for the primary. Unheard of,” Mason said. “We’re in general election numbers here.”

The Secretary of State’s Office sent postcards to every registered voter in Vermont, which allowed them to send the postcard back to their town clerk to request an absentee ballot. The absentee ballot was sent to the voter with prepaid postage for return delivery.

Mason said the system not only kept voters safe during the pandemic, it also made voting more accessible for residents who lack transportation or who have a work schedule that conflicts with polling hours. While postage and materials may be more expensive, she thinks mail-in voting could be continued after the pandemic.

“If you want people to vote, and you want participation to go up, then you need to make it easier,” Mason said. “And you need to allow people these other methods.”

And, Mason said, people like the system.

“The mail in has been awesome. People have loved it,” Mason said. “We got thank you notes, smiley faces.”

Condos said it’s up to the Legislature to determine whether a mail-in ballot system should be adopted permanently.

A shift to mail-in voting would require an additional investment for return postage and printing of materials. Condos said the Legislature needs to weigh that expense against increased voter turnout.

Postcards for the primary and mail-in ballots for the general election will cost an additional $3 million and $4 million. Funding primarily came from the federal government that was provided to help states pay for the added costs of holding elections during the pandemic.

“I think we’re showing that the system can work,” Condos said. “I support the idea for sending out postcards ahead of time or doing the vote by mail.”

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