On February 24, 2021

Legislative Update: bills codify Covid lessons learned 

By Sen. Alison Clarkson

Our Town Meetings will be unusual this year. Yet another example of Vermont’s ability to respond flexibly to the continuing challenges the Covid-19 pandemic presents. Some towns are holding Informational Meetings in advance of the vote by Australian ballot on Tuesday, March 2. Some are holding off until May in hopes of gathering in person once again. Having attended Woodstock’s informational meeting by Zoom, I was impressed by how well it went. It was the first of two such meetings and almost 60 people attended. It was good to “see” so many as the town reviewed everything from its vision, its planned capital improvements to its budget and all the articles on the ballot. In this unusual year, I look forward to attending many more town informational meetings than normal – an opportunity enabled by our Zoom life.

This virtual gathering year reminds me of how much we’ve learned during this pandemic — and how many of these”lessons learned” we may incorporate into our lives and statutes as we go forward into the 21st Century. Remote access to the governor’s press conferences has been wonderful for small newspapers and news outlets, and, it’s made it easier for witnesses to testify in our legislative committee meetings — as they can participate from almost anywhere in Vermont. And more people are attending Select Board and other municipal meetings than ever before.

It has also laid bare major needs in Vermont. Our remote life, forced upon us by Covid, has been a clarion call for Vermont to invest in major social and technological infrastructure needs we’ve known about for years. Upgrading our state’s technology infrastructure (30-year-old mainframes overwhelmed by the volume of need and incapable of adapting to change), enabling high speed internet connection to every Vermont business and home, expanding affordable, accessible childcare for our families, expanding and improving our mental health system, expanding our telehealth opportunities, building more affordable housing and eliminating homelessness, digitizing land records, and building our civic engagement by enabling access — these are just a few of the needs articulated by this Covid pandemic.

The Senate Government Operations Committee has just passed out an elections bill which would change our laws to reflect some of these lessons learned. We had record voter turnout in our 2020 general election due in large measure to our vote-by-mail initiative. All registered voters in Vermont were mailed a ballot (over 500,000) and had the ability to return it by mail, in a drop box, or in person. As a result, voter turnout rose from 63% in 2016 and 57% in 2018 to 73% in 2020. Three quarters of the ballots voted were by mail/absentee.

The process went very smoothly, with high integrity, despite concerns to the contrary. This bill celebrates the success of this effort by making permanent the mailing out of ballots to all active registered voters for general elections. The bill, S.15, has a lot of detail needed to allow this to happen in an efficient way — ability to cure certain defective ballots, more flexibility for towns around polling places, allowing town clerks the ability to process ballots early, asking for suggestions for best practices for translation services and more.

Another SGO bill, S.87, comes also from Covid-19’s lessons learned. It would automatically allow certain changes to government functions in the event of a declared emergency without the Legislature having to scramble once an emergency is declared. All of the solutions in it are ones that had been passed during the 2020 session and were created in response to the Covid crisis.

Alison Clarkson is a state senator representing Windsor County, and can be reached at: aclarkson@leg.state.vt.us or 457-4627.

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