How Early Should 'Early Voting' Begin? Depends On Where In Vermont You Live

Sep 20, 2016

Early voting for the November election officially starts on Friday, Sept. 23, but some towns have been handing out ballots for the past week. The Vermont Republican Party wants to know why the secretary of state's office has allowed this to happen.

Vermont's early ballot law is one of the most lenient in the country: It allows voters to cast their ballot within 45 days of an election, either in person at their town clerk's office or by mail.

This timeframe means that early voting will formally begin on Friday, but there are signs that it's already started.

John Odum is the city clerk in Montpelier. His office got their general election ballots last week and he immediately sent out early ballots to voters who had requested them.  

"We've had people coming in for the last month all the time looking for the ballots,” Odum says. “And every day we tell them nope, expect them within a certain amount of time and as soon as they're ready you can come in and vote. That's always the way it's been done and I struggle to think of any possible reason why it shouldn't be done that way."

David Sunderland is the chairman of the Vermont Republican Party. He says it's unfair to give voters in some towns an extra week to vote early. He wonders if politics is playing a role in this issue.

"Why wasn't there direction given to the town clerks to hold these until everybody got them? That would seem to be the most logical thing,” Sunderland says. “The towns that got them early traditionally have voted strongly Democrat which is the secretary of state's political party.”

"Why wasn't there direction given to the town clerks to hold these until everybody got them? That would seem to be the most logical thing." — VT GOP Chair David Sunderland

Secretary of State Jim Condos says state law clearly allows town clerks to make early ballots available to voters as soon as the clerks receive their ballots from the printer. The exact language of the law reads: "The early voter absentee ballots shall be mailed forthwith upon the filing of a valid application, or upon the town clerk's receipt of the necessary ballots, whichever is later."

Condos says this means that early voting will be available to all people at least 45 days before an election, and in some cases, even longer periods.

He says he's very disappointed that GOP Chairman Sunderland has raised this issue in a political way.

“The fact that he's making baseless, uninformed and frankly offensive charges without any real evidence is ridiculous,” Condos says. “I mean, this is purely political gamesmanship."

"The fact that he's making baseless, uninformed and frankly offensive charges without any real evidence is ridiculous ... This is purely political gamesmanship." — Secretary of State Jim Condos

Meanwhile, former Middlebury College political science professor Eric Davis says the early voting law has had an impact on how political campaigns are run. He says the law encourages the campaigns to get their field operations in place much sooner than in the past in order to identify core supporters.

"And encourage them to vote as early as possible,” Davis explains. “That way the votes of those people are sort of locked up, they're already in the ballot box so to speak. So that the field organization can work more on the uncertain voters, the undecided voters in the weeks leading up just until election day."

Davis doesn't think that early voting has had much of an impact on the use of TV advertising by the campaigns. That's because he says most of these ads are targeted at undecided voters who will make up their minds in the weeks leading up to the election.