Unofficial results from the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office show that 170,586 people voted in the primary election, a 39% higher turnout than the recent primary record of 122,437 set in 2000.
Historically, towns typically report 20% to 25% participation of their registered voters for primary elections, according to Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos. As of the turnout records so far, most towns show 30% to 40% participation. A few reached the 50% and above mark.
The remarkable showing suggests that the circumstances surrounding this election cycle — an unprecedented health and economic crisis, nationwide protests for criminal justice reforms, and a presidential race featuring one of the most polarizing figures in modern history — have gotten the attention of the electorate.
Another possible explanation: It was easier to vote.
Absentee ballots accounted for much of the increase with over 114,000 counted as of Tuesday morning, Aug. 11.
The Secretary of State’s Office sent postcards to every registered voter in Vermont which allowed them to send it back to their town clerk to request an absentee ballot. The absentee ballot was sent to the voter with prepaid postage for return delivery.
“The easier you make it for people to participate, the more participation you have,” explained Deb Markowitz, who was Vermont’s secretary of state from 1999 to 2010.
Condos elaborated, saying: “From the high volume of mailed-in ballots, to the utilization of outdoor and drive-thru polling places, it’s clear that Vermonters are taking this health crisis, as well as their Constitutional right to vote, seriously and are prepared to take the measures necessary to ensure safe voting in 2020.
Seeing historic turnout for this August Primary election was incredibly rewarding for me and my elections team. My office has been working hard to maintain access for Vermonters while protecting their health and safety and that hard work paid off. I want to thank every Vermont voter who exercised their right to vote in a manner that they determined was best for their situation. The more people that vote, the stronger our democracy becomes.”
Condos said it’s up to the Legislature to determine if a mail-in ballot system should be adopted permanently.
A shift to mail-in voting would require an additional investment for return postage and printing of materials. Condos said the Legislature needs to weigh that expense against increased voter turnout.
Postcards for the primary and mail-in ballots for the general election will cost an additional $3 million and $4 million, respectively. Funding primarily came from the federal government which was provided to help states pay for the added costs of holding elections during the pandemic.
“I think we’re showing that the system can work,” Condos said. “I support the idea for sending out postcards ahead of time or doing the vote by mail.”
Grace Elletson of VTDigger contributed to this report.