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Vermont bill may mean mail-in, drive-by voting for Town Meeting

  • Justice of the Peace Curt Albee counts votes during a vote on an amended article that would establish a committee to study town governance during Strafford Town Meeting Tuesday, March 1, 2016. An amended version of the article was approved by voters. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/26/2020 9:06:35 PM
Modified: 3/27/2020 10:35:39 AM

ORFORD — Vermont municipalities with upcoming or postponed Town Meeting votes are applauding legislation passed this week that could open the door to mail-in or drive-by voting.

The bill, HB 681, would allow Vermont towns and school districts to forgo floor meetings and instead adopt Australian ballot voting for 2020.

The legislation also would allow the Secretary of State’s Office to require mail-in voting, permit the drive-up collection of ballots, and extend voting hours and the time clerks are allowed to count votes.

The measure is part of a package of COVID-19 legislation passed by the state House and Senate this week. Gov. Phil Scott has pledged to sign it.

“Now we have a way to hold a legal meeting, which is what we’ve been waiting on,” Rivendell School Board Chairman Marc DeBois said on Thursday.

The Rivendell Interstate School District — which covers the town of Fairlee, West Fairlee, Vershire and Orford — postponed its annual meeting earlier this month to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The district meeting had rescheduled for May 5, but officials couldn’t be sure a gathering at Rivendell Academy would be safe for voters, and officials were mulling further postponements, DeBois said.

The Oxbow Unified Union School District — which encompasses Bradford and Newbury — was in a similar situation with an April annual meeting that was likely to be pushed back.

“That’s not going to happen,” Bruce Williams, assistant superintendent at the Orange East Supervisory Union, said of Oxbow’s annual floor meeting.

Like Rivendell, the Oxbow district’s articles of agreement require a floor vote on the budget and other articles. But that meeting was scheduled for April 14, a day before the governor’s stay-at-home order is set to expire.

“I can’t predict at this point in time whether that’s going to be viable,” Williams said. “It’s certainly not viable for a period of time.”

The legislation is intended to “liberate” towns and school districts from requirements to hold in-person meetings, state Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock.

Clarkson, who sits on the Senate Committee of Government Operations that crafted the bill, says it is needed to continue social distancing practices already expected of Vermonters.

“We want people to be able to vote, but we also want them to do it safely,” she said. “All of us are trying to balance the need to continue doing the work we need to do with health and safety.”

The elections bill comes as school districts across the state prepare for May annual meetings, according to Will Senning, who runs the Elections Division at the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office.

Some towns, like Hartford, also need to hold votes to ratify Town Meeting results or have ballot-driven revotes, he said.

Senning said he’s now working to identify the most useful provisions in the elections bill before deciding what action the state will take. Until new guidance is available, he’s encouraging towns to delay and cancel votes.

“I think it’s unsafe to operate polling places right now, especially in the normal way,” he said.

Meanwhile, New Hampshire communities that similarly postponed Town Meeting are left with fewer options.

The state Legislature is suspended until April 10, and Gov. Chris Sununu on Thursday issued a stay-at-home order in effect through May 4.

Hanover’s usual May meeting will likely be moved to June, said Town Manager Julia Griffin.

And Enfield, which planned to hold its floor meeting on March 14, is now looking to May 9, according to Town Manager Ryan Aylesworth.

“Hopefully, we won’t have to postpone it yet again as that date approaches,” he said in an email.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

 Correction

Enfield tentatively plans to hold   its floor portion of Town Meeting, which was delayed because of the new coronavirus outbreak, on May 9. An earlier version of this story gave the wrong date.




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