Need to know info about Vermont’s mailed ballots

From the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office

Visit the elections section of our website at where we have lots of information about voting. You can also find the online portal to register to vote, update your voter information, track your absentee ballot, or you can visit our FAQ section for answers to the many other questions you or your constituents might have.

The Basics

To prevent unnecessary contact at polling places during the pandemic, the Secretary of State’s Office has mailed a ballot to all registered active voters. The final batch of ballots (batched by Town) went out Thursday, October 1st. Voters should expect their ballot by October 7th. You can visit the Secretary of State’s website to see when your town mailing was sent. You can also track your ballot by going to your own “My Voter Page” at which will tell you when it was sent and when it was received by your town clerk.

When you get your ballot, make sure that you follow the instructions inside, including putting your ballot in the ‘voted ballot’ envelope, filling out the certificate on the front of the envelope, and signing and dating it. You cannot vote someone else’s ballot, only your own. If your ballot didn’t arrive by October 7, you’ve recently moved, or you recently registered to vote, contact your Town Clerk to request your ballot. Here is a listing of town clerks and their contact information.

Your Town Clerk needs to have received your ballot by 7pm on Tuesday, November 3rd, which is Election Day, for it to count, but how you return it is up to you:

  • By mail–postage is paid and the envelope is pre-addressed to your Town Clerk. Make sure to leave as much time as possible, so that the mail can reach your clerk in time (7-10 days, no later than October 24th).
  • Bringing it directly to your Town Clerks office–check with them directly on office hours or visitation procedures: they may even have a secure ballot drop box you can deposit your ballot in.
  • Bringing it to the polls on Election Day –you can vote in person, or drop your ballot off, up to 7pm on Election Day. In person voting at the polls will be available to all voters in all 275 polling locations, like usual. But by voting early you are helping to protect your health, the health of other voters, and the health of our neighbors working at the polling place. Help flatten the absentee ballot curve by voting your ballot early.

For official, trusted information about your vote, visit these links:

Why Mail Every Active Registered Voter a Ballot?

The Secretary of State’s Office has two unwavering goals while planning for the 2020 Elections to ensure that no Vermont voter has to choose between their health and their right to vote:

  1. Preserve the voting rights of every Vermont voter, and
  2. Protect the health and safety of voters, Town Clerks, and election workers

The Legislature granted the Secretary of State the authority to adopt temporary election procedures for 2020 so that we would have the flexibility to adapt to the COVID-19 health crisis. Very early on, we determined that we needed to drive down in-person turnout at polling places and that the best way to do that was to drive up absentee voting. The best way to ensure the maximum amount of absentee voting was to mail every active registered voter a ballot with a prepaid return envelope.

We had to make this decision months in advance, not knowing what path the virus would take or what would face us in October and November, amidst speculation around a resurgence of the virus in the Fall. In hindsight, while Vermont has done a commendable job of containment, the United States has not. Mailing everyone a ballot will ensure every voter can vote in a way that is appropriate to their situation and no one has to make a choice between their vote and their health.

How Will It Work?

Voting by mail is simple, safe, and secure. We have numerous protections to ensure fairness and integrity in our elections process. For instance: voters cannot vote more than one ballot, as they can only be checked off the checklist once.

To return their ballot, voters can mail it back so long as they leave ample time for the mail delivery –postage is prepaid. They can also hand deliver their ballot to their Town Clerk, but should check first with the Clerk on any visitation procedures, or if the Clerk has installed a secure ballot drop box. Or, they can bring their ballot to the polls on election day, which will be open for all voters subject to safety guidelines we developed with the Department of Health, using CDC best practices.

Why not use the Primary “By Request” System for the General Election?

The Primary Election was an example of how elections can be held safely during a pandemic, while preserving the integrity of every vote cast. To achieve the same reduction in in-person voting on Election Day November 3rd, so that it can be conducted in a way that minimizes exposure for those voting in person or working the polls, our office will be mailing a ballot to every active registered voter. Simply put, the number of voters participating in a General Election is typically double the number participating in our Primaries. Relying on the existing absentee ballot request system could mean failing to reduce in-person traffic at the polls on Election Day to a level at which it can be conducted safely. It could also mean an enormous surge in absentee ballot requests, which could not be mailed centrally like our current mailing, and those mailings would need to be done manually by the Town Clerks. This could overwhelm the Clerks, especially during this pandemic where reduced office hours, limited staff capacity, and room occupancy limits would make their job of assembling mailings of that size incredibly difficult. Lastly, voters may forget to request an absentee ballot in time, and then are put in the position of choosing whether or not to risk potential exposure to vote at the polls. We also did not understand the current issues with delays the postal service but are glad we have eliminated the timeliness of one leg of the trip by getting ballots to voters at the earliest possible date without waiting for them to request. It should be noted that before we announced this plan, over 140,000 Vermonters had already requested their ballots for the November elections.

What about the Defective Ballot Rate in the Primary?

Our goal every election cycle is for there to be as low of a defective rate as possible. We consider each and every vote not counted because the voter did not follow the voting instructions to be incredibly unfortunate. Sadly, defective ballots are an unfortunate part of every Election. On the other side of the coin, Vermont law provides some of the greatest leniency for ballot acceptance compared to other states, Historically, Vermont’s defective ballot rate hovers at around 1% or so. This year, as anticipated, it does appear that there was a slight increase in the rate of defective ballots. Keep in mind, this year’s Primary Election was historic in a number of ways, from sheer record shattering turnout, to the significantly heightened number of voters casting early/absentee ballots. These are both things that we can and should celebrate!

For first time voters, especially for first time voters who voted early/absentee, the Primary presents additional administrative requirements that some voters may have neglected to meet, as opposed to voting early/absentee in non-Primary Elections. We don’t have exact data now on the breakdown of the defective ballot reasons, but it is safe to say from what we have heard anecdotally from the Clerks, that a large percentage of defective ballots were from:

  • failure to return the two un voted ballots, or
  • voting more than one party’s Primary ballot,or
  • failing to sign the certificate envelope, contrary to the included instructions.

The first two problems will not be an issue for the General Election, where voters will only receive one ballot to vote and return.

Concerns about Vermont Voter Checklist and Accuracy

No voter checklist will ever be 100% perfect. There will always be deceased people on the list and the process for removing challenged voters is cautious, by design, to protect the right to vote and to avoid overly aggressive purging. Vermont has one of the most updated and accurate voter checklists nationally, due in large part to our relatively new Election Management System (installed in 2015), automatic voter registration, and the nightly feed of address changes we get from the DMV. In addition, through the ballot request postcard we sent out for the primary, the Clerks have been able to conduct significant updates to the voter registration data base just since August.

You may have heard some complaints about inaccurate mailings of the Primaries postcard. These were by design. We mailed postcard to challenged voters, providing challenged voters a chance to affirm their registration status. For the November General Election, we have mailed ballots only to active, registered voters, meaning none of those challenged voters are on the list to be mailed a ballot. Also, unlike the postcard, we are not having the Postal Service forward ballots – they will be returned to the Town Clerk, further reducing the number of ballots received by former voters who have moved. We also receive monthly notices of deaths from the Department of Health and we receive notices from other states when a voter registers in another state and indicates Vermont was where they were previously registered Everyone wants to achieve as accurate a voter checklist as possible: this must be balanced with voter access –the removal of a voter from a voter checklist should be done in a careful and deliberate process with a focus on voter access

Concerns about Voter Fraud Due to the Ballot Mailing

Election integrity is important and the Secretary of State’s Office takes it seriously. Fortunately, voter fraud is exceedingly rare. But it is not non-existent, which is why we have safeguards in place to prevent it, and to detect those rare cases if they happen. Vermont has severe criminal penalties for impersonating a voter, or for voting more than once. All early or by-mail ballots must be submitted in the certificate envelope, which must be signed by the voter under the pains and penalties of perjury that they are who they say they are and that they haven’t voted more than once. Risking potential jail time to try and change an election by one vote isn’t something the majority of people would think is worth it.

The control point for the election is at the return of ballots to the clerk. No matter how many ballots are out there, each voter may return only one. When a ballot is received by the Clerk, early by mail or in-person at the polls, that voter is checked off the checklist as having voted. If another ballot is submitted under their name, the Clerk will know, and an investigation can be triggered immediately. Our election management system allows the Clerks to see if a voter has moved, and their voting history follows them. Again, if they try to vote more than once, the system will know, the Clerks will know, and we’ll know. Clerks know their voters and they are instructed to notify us of any suspicious activity, which we take incredibly seriously.

National, non-partisan studies nationally have shown time and time again that widespread voter fraud is virtually non-existent. Now, voter fraud does occur, however it is so infrequent that the numbers measure well below 1/10th of a percent, based on the data that experts have analyzed. See the Justin Levitt study, which only found 31 POTENTIAL credible cases, out of a billion votes analyzed, and also the Brennan Center, which has done considerable research in this area, including specifically looking at vote by mail.

Concerns about so-called “Ballot Harvesting”

There is a lot of misplaced fear about the act of voters receiving assistance with the return of their voted ballot. In practice, this is often a relative, neighbor, friend or other trusted person helping a voter get their voted ballot to the Clerk so that their vote can be counted. A few people are concerned that political operatives will sweep into our communities and go door to door to amass piles of ballots, influence voters and even discard or change voted ballots. These acts of altering a vote are illegal and will be prosecuted. While these scenarios are farfetched, when this concern was brought up in the Legislature, this office asked not to act upon it there, injecting further politicization into an already exaggerated issue, and to instead allow us to address it by Directive. Out of an abundance of caution we ordered that candidates on the ballot and their staff members, cannot collect ballots from voters.

Will We Know Election Results on Election Night?

Yes – we will have UNOFFICIAL results on election night. Under our temporary directive, clerks may begin processing mail ballots 30 days before the election. That is processing only and not counting, but by doing this, clerks should be ready to count votes and report unofficial results after the close of polls at 7PM on election day. You can follow along as unofficial results come in on our election results page on election night.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s