With the stroke of the governor’s pen on Monday, Vermont became the 14th state to allow same-day voter registration. Proponents say the measure will help improve low turnout rates in Vermont elections. Critics though say it could make it easier to sabotage the democratic process.
Secretary of State Jim Condos fielded calls from two town clerks last Election Day, each with the same urgent question:
“I’ve got two people who just walked into my office to sign up to vote, can they vote on Tuesday?”
Condos says regrettably, the clerks had a statutory duty to turn the would-be voters away. And he says the episode underscores the importance of the same-day voter registration bill signed into law by Gov. Shumlin on Monday.
“Simply put, this is a voters’ rights bill,” Condos said.
Shumlin signed the legislation at a City Hall ceremony in Montpelier. He lamented woeful turnout in the last election cycle, when fewer than 45 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
“The numbers all show that with same day voter registration, voter participation goes up from anywhere between 7 and 14 percent,” Shumlin said. “That is a huge accomplishment to ensure that our democracy remains healthy.”
Franklin Sen. Dustin Degree however says the legislation lacks the safeguards – like having to show a driver’s license or some other form of identification – that would otherwise ensure the additional voters are all legitimate. Degree says same-day voter registration opens the door to election fraud, by making it easier for bad actors to go undetected as they vote in multiple jurisdictions.
Secretary of State Condos says voter fraud is virtually nonexistent in Vermont. But Degree says states like Vermont, where a local race can come down to a single-digit margin, need to be especially vigilant.
“In Vermont, voter fraud doesn’t have to be large. Voter fraud can be small … and can have an effect on the outcome of a race,” Degree says.
Town clerks across the state, many of whom actively spoke out against the bill, share Degree’s concerns. Montpelier City Clerk John Odum isn’t one of them. Odum says the emergence of a statewide voter checklist will mitigate the risk of fraud.
“And we’re fortunate that we’ve had clerks in 13 states across the country who have been out there ahead of us for decade to show that there’s nothing to fear,” Odum says. “And believe me, Vermont clerks are every bit as competent and capable as those other clerks in other states. So I’m very excited about this.”
The District of Columbia also allows for same-day voter registration.
Shumlin says the bill passed in part due to a Statehouse lobbying effort by the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. The new law applies to all elections, including ones held on Town Meeting Day, and it won’t go into effect until after the 2016 presidential elections.