To Avoid Disqualified Ballots, Vermont Voters Now Get to Fix Certain Errors

The move follows 2020’s primary, which saw thousands of disqualifying mistakes 

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A new state law in Vermont means voters can get a second chance to ensure their ballot is counted if they made certain mistakes in filling them out in early voting.

Vermont’s primary day is August 9, when Republicans, Progressives, and Democrats will decide their parties’ nominees for the general election in November.

This year, for the first time, an update to voting rules means primary voters can correct errors that previously would’ve disqualified their ballots — if they forgot key steps in completing them.

"I would say it’s working, and working well," Jim Condos, a Democrat who is not seeking re-election as Vermont’s secretary of state, said of the update to this year’s primary. 

In 2020’s primary, when the pandemic meant voting-by-mail dramatically and suddenly expanded, more than 6,000 Vermont ballots were labeled defective and tossed out, the secretary of state announced at the time. That was more than 3.5% of the total number of ballots in the August 2020 primary.

The biggest problems were people not signing their ballot envelopes or not properly returning unvoted ballots. If someone in Vermont votes as, say, a Democrat, they have to give back blank ballots for the Republican and Progressive parties. Additionally, they have to be placed in specific envelopes.

Under the new change, people now have a chance to "cure" improperly-returned ballots. 

Clerks are sending postcards to early voters if their envelopes had one of those problems or a handful of other issues, and an online system will reveal if you need to check with your town or city clerk to fix the error. 

Condos said as of Tuesday morning, a week out from primary day, 260 of 444 faulty returned ballots had been successfully cured.

"That is 260 votes in the past elections, that would not have been counted because of an error in how they returned it," Condos noted. "Now it works."

Changing your mind about a candidate is not an acceptable reason to get your ballot back and make an alteration, Condos noted.

Sarah Mason, Williston’s town clerk, told NECN she has seen far fewer ballot problems this summer than in 2020. She chalked that up to voters’ experience with the procedure of early voting and to clearer guidance on return envelopes. 

The secretary of state’s office said an organization that works with election leaders nationally, called the Center for Civic Design, helped Vermont improve the wording and layout of documents in an attempt to reduce voter error.

Tracking down people for fixes does mean extra work for clerks and their staff, but Mason said it’s the right thing for Vermont to do.

"We will help you," Mason said of the city and town clerks of Vermont. "There are a lot of places where they just try to restrict and make it even harder for you — and that just doesn’t seem right."

However, not all ballots will be fixable. Mason said she has gotten several ballots at the town’s secure drop box that didn’t have signatures or return addresses — so there’s no way of knowing whose ballots they were. There’s no counting those, Mason explained, emphasizing it is an example of why people should read the instructions carefully with early voting.

Mason said excitement for this year’s primary is high, due to rare vacancies in Vermont’s Congressional delegation and to a number of hot contests for statewide office.

The race for the Democrats’ nominee for U.S. House has been particularly closely-watched.

Adam Weiss, a Williston voter, isn’t waiting until primary day in Vermont, on August 9. He already filled out his ballot and returned it to Williston’s drop box.

"I will never miss a vote," Weiss pledged, adding he was pleased to know about the new policy around ballot curing. "Any step that can be taken to increase ballot access is super important to me."

If you requested a ballot early, Condos reminded voters that ballots won’t be counted if they come in after polls close — even if they were postmarked ahead of time. If the mail will cut it too close, Condos encouraged voters to bring their completed ballots to their clerk’s office; to official, secure drop boxes in their district; or to their normal polling place.

Vermont residents can register to vote up to and including on primary day. More information about registering to vote is available here.

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