MONTPELIER — In response to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, the Vermont House passed a bill on Tuesday that intends to give towns more flexibility when it comes to conducting their annual 2021 town meetings.
H.48 was passed by the House 146-0.
The Senate will likely take up the bill on Jan. 13.
That flexibility is exemplified in two key parts of the bill.
The bill, H.48, allows:
- municipalities to move the date of their 2021 annual meeting to a potentially safer date later in the year
- municipalities to require the municipal clerk to mail to all of the active registered voters the Australian ballot
The bill was crafted by the Government Operations Committee of which Rep. John Palasik, R-Chittenden-10 is a part.
It was introduced by the committee’s chair, Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Orange-2.
Hanzas said the committee not only “met feverishly” over the last week, but began thinking about these issues as soon as the General Election was over in November.
“This language has been in process for much longer than just the first couple of days of this legislative session,” Hanzas said. “In fact, last November...I began having conversations...because it was clear at that time, that the pandemic rates are unlikely to decline to the rates necessary to meet in-person in March.”
This bill allows towns who utilize a floor vote to move the date of their annual meeting until a time when it is again safe to gather in large groups.
“The bill’s fundamental purpose is to protect the health and safety of Vermonters during the pandemic,” Hanzas said.
Should a town or school district decide to move the date of its meeting, the bill states that the current municipal officers will serve until the new annual meeting and successors are chosen.
Towns who use an Australian ballot, like Milton, will be encouraged to mail ballots to all voters, so as to avoid lines and crowds at polling places.
Last week, Vermont’s Joint Fiscal Committee agreed to commit $2 million from what’s left of Vermont’s share of the CARES Act to help offset towns' election costs.
Money from the appropriation could be used by towns and school districts to cover the cost of purchasing blank Australian ballots and other printing and mailing expenses.
Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Rutland-Windsor-1, shared his concern that for example, within the same town, a school district could decide to mail ballots while the municipality could decide not to.
“If a voter gets a ballot for one, and not the other, would there perhaps be a lower turnout...or confusion?” he said.
Hanzas responded by saying the bill encourages towns and school districts, as well as water and fire districts, to collaborate on a system for voting.
The bill authorizes the Secretary of State’s Office to provide all necessary guidance to town clerks and election officials on how to conduct a safe election.
“Our town and city clerks are critical to our ability to hold safe and fair and well-managed elections,” Hanzas said. “They might have a much steeper workload this year and we all must thank them for that in advance.”