By Mike Yantachka
Rep. Mike Yantachka
Our United States Constitution guarantees American citizens many rights, most notably those contained in the first 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights. The right of every eligible citizen to vote is fundamental to our democracy and ensures that our other rights are protected by holding government accountable. While originally reserved only for free male citizens of age 21 or older, the right to vote was extended over time by subsequent amendments to freed male slaves, women, and citizens of age 18 and older. In fact, this year is the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote.
After the Civil War and up until the 1960s, African Americans’ right to vote was suppressed by southern states through the use of poll taxes and literacy tests. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated those measures in the states and jurisdictions with a history of discrimination, and any changes to their voting laws required federal oversight (preclearance). However, in 2013 a divided Supreme Court struck down the preclearance clause of the act. This allowed a wave of measures enacted by many conservative states to make it harder to vote or skewed the vote by redrawing districts, a practice known as gerrymandering. Requiring voter IDs, reducing the number of polling places in minority-heavy districts, and mass purges of names from voter lists have all eroded this fundamental element of our democracy.
On the other hand, many states, including Vermont, have made it easier for eligible citizens to vote. Five states conduct all elections by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. Vermont allows people to register to vote right up to voting day. We maintain a statewide voter database to reduce duplication of registration. We allow absentee and early voting to begin 45 days before the election. Several weeks ago, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Wisconsin voters had to risk their health by standing in line to vote in person because the Wisconsin Supreme Court would not allow absentee voting without a valid excuse. Subsequently, a University of Wisconsin study found a “statistically and economically significant association” between in-person voting and the spread of COVID-19 after the election.
We don’t know at this time whether COVID-19 will still be widespread at the time of the primary election in August and the general election in November. Vermont has been relatively successful in suppressing the spread of the virus. As the restrictions on social participation are relaxed, we hope that we will not see a second wave of infections. However, we can’t take that for granted. We should be preparing now for both elections to be held primarily by mail. House bill H.681, which passed both the House and Senate and was signed into law by Governor Scott, gives the secretary of state temporary authority to change the way we hold elections during the COVID-19 emergency.
Secretary of State Jim Condos, in consultation with Governor Scott, is exploring options for the primary and general elections. These will certainly include an expansion of Vermont’s existing early and absentee voting system. It’s a safe and secure process that allows any registered voter to cast a ballot by mail and is the method recommended for Charlotte’s budget and trails vote on June 23. (You can vote now!) The polls will still be open on election day in some safe, modified way for people who prefer to vote in person.
As individuals we can prepare now for whatever form future elections take. The first step is to visit the “My Voter Page” (mvp.vermont.gov/) of the secretary of state’s website. You’ll see two green buttons where you can register to vote or confirm that you’re registered to vote. If you know you’re registered to vote but the site says you’re not, then check with our town clerk. I was unable to find my record and called the town clerk’s office. I learned that my birth date was set to 1/1/1900 in the database, which was easily corrected. Then I was able to confirm it on the website. You can also verify that your address is correct, which is important if ballots will be mailed. Finally, you can always ask for a mail-in ballot by calling our town clerk.
Vermont has a better record of voter turnout than most states, ranking 11th in 2018 with a 56 percent showing. Absentee ballots accounted for about 30 percent of votes cast in both the 2016 and 2018 general elections. Vermonters take their commitment to democracy seriously. We will not let even a pandemic get between us and that commitment.