Make A Difference At Your Town Meeting
Deb Markowitz, Secretary of State
On Town Meeting Day, the first Tuesday in March, citizens across Vermont come together in their communities to discuss the business of their towns. For over 200 years, Town Meeting Day has been an important political event as Vermonters elect local officers and vote on budgets. It has also been a time for neighbors to discuss the civic issues of their community, state and nation.
While some of our towns vote all of their issues at a polling place (by Australian ballot), most of our communities still decide local issues and set municipal budgets at a meeting of the voters. The beauty of Vermontís tradition of debating and voting on issues at a meeting of the voters is that every citizen can have a real impact on the direction and decisions of the town. But to be effective at Town Meeting, you must be prepared.
At the Secretary of Stateís Office we have compiled a number of resources to help. Visit our Town Meeting Website www.sec.state.vt.us or email email@example.com or call 802-828-2363 to order our Citizenís Guide to Town Meeting or our Moderatorís Handbook.
Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your town meeting.
1. Find out what will be decided at Town Meeting. Every town must publish and make available to voters a Town Report. The Town Report can tell you a good deal about what to expect at your town meeting. It includes the warning Ėthe official agenda of the meeting. The warning is a list of the issues that will be discussed and acted on by the meeting. Reports from the town officers explain what has gone on in the town over the past year and may suggest what is planned for the future. Finally, a close look at the budget (what is proposed to be spent in the coming year) and the audit report (what was actually spent in the prior year) lets you assess whether the town is spending your money wisely and whether you agree with the priorities for the coming year.
Town meeting may be a piece of our past, but it is still shaping our future. So, make a difference in your community and go to Town Meeting!
Deb Markowitz, Secretary of State
No one values freedom and democracy more than Vermonters. Indeed, the settlers who founded Vermont in 1777 broke away from New York because the government was distant and unresponsive, leaving them vulnerable to conflicting land claims, arbitrary bureaucratic decisions and general lawlessness.
Those early Vermonters drafted the new state constitution to ensure that there existed checks and balances to hold government accountable. The 1777 Constitution declared that government officials were servants of the people and are ďat all times accountable to them.Ē The constitution guaranteed public access to the legislature, easy access to deeds and land records and it included two provisions guaranteeing freedom of the press.
From this idea -- that government belongs to the people -- has evolved a body of law designed to guarantee public access to the records, the meetings and the decisions of Vermont government. We have laws that guarantee the publicís right to attend and comment during meetings of public agencies, laws that require agendas and minutes of meetings to be made available to the public upon request. We have laws that allow a person to walk into a town hall or office of state government and ask to view the agency records.
But it is not as simple as it once was. Today we are facing many threats to the open and transparent government envisioned by our founders. Over the years, exemptions to these laws have been created. The exemptions seek to balance the right of the public to hold government accountable with other interests, such as the right of the governor to get frank advice from his advisors and department heads, the rights of boards to discuss employees in private, and the right of government to negotiate contracts outside of the public eye. Indeed there are now over 200 exemptions to the laws guaranteeing access to the records of public agencies, and numerous exemptions to the right to attend the meetings of our public bodies. (Use our searchable database at http://vermont-archives.org/records/access/index.htm to see what is exempt.)
With the expansion of government agencies there has also been growth in the number of records created, without a concomitant commitment to the management of those records. A record that cannot be found is no different than a record destroyed or never created. Discussing management is not as elevating as proclaiming on a right to know. Yet you cannot have the one without the other.
We are also confronting issues well beyond anything our ancestors could have anticipated. The new world of computer technology allows information to be searched, combined and broadcast in ways that are even unimaginable to us. At the same time, as government services have expanded, so have the number of public records containing information on the health, finances and other personal information of citizens. And, since 2001, concern for open records has been further tempered by security concerns. What public information could potentially aid those who mean us harm? How much should we sacrifice our personal privacy or our right to transparent government because of possible threats? These are important questions to us, the heirs of Vermontís founders.
The week of March 11th has been designated Sunshine Week to highlight the importance of the laws that guarantee the publicís right to access government information. During Sunshine Week let us recommit ourselves to open government. We must roll up our sleeves and do the hard work of identifying the laws that limit our access to government and consider afresh the policies behind those exemptions. We must avoid assuming that ever newer and faster information technologies provide solutions, without first knowing precisely what it is we want those technologies to do. And we must remember that not all of the answers lie in high blown celebrations of our right to know but rather in the sustained commitment to managing those records to ensure they are available when we need them.
Most of all, let us recognize what an incredible resource public records and government information is for making government transparent and accountable. It is only with broad access to information that we can measure how well we are being served. And it is only with broad access to the records of government that citizens and government alike can make informed decisions about the direction of the state.
This Sunshine Week we must return to the past and learn from Vermontís early leaders. They knew that a government of the people depends on making citizens a party to decision making through access to records and decisions of government.
Letís Welcome Our High
School Seniors Into Adulthood -- And On To The Voter Rolls
By Deb Markowitz, Vermont Secretary of State
Educators, civic leaders and Secretaries of States have been working hard over the past decade to engage our young people in the political process. And our hard work is beginning to pay off. During the last election young people voted in the highest numbers seen since the 1970s when they first won the right to vote. But there is still a lot of work to do. Despite the higher turnouts, three out of four young people between the ages of 18 and 24 donít vote.
Vermontís young adults give many reasons for not voting. Some say they donít know how voting relates to their lives, often explaining that the candidates and campaigns donít speak to their issues. Still others say that they donít understand how it all works. But the most common answer is that they werenít registered to vote.
Registering to vote is the most crucial initial step to becoming an involved citizen in our democracy, but itís not as easy as just filling out a form. Vermontís constitution requires a person to take a "voterís oath." A notary public or justice of the peace must give this oath. Students who forget to register and take the oath prior to leaving the state for college, the military or employment find themselves unable to vote in the November election. They cannot simply register and then vote by mail, as other states would allow. This makes registering our seniors before they graduate very important.
This year the Secretary of Stateís office has designated the week of May 14th Ė 21st High School Voter Registration Week. During this week, we are asking schools across Vermont to register their high school seniors. Vermontís town clerks and Board of Civil Authority members and the League of Women Voters are helping out by making themselves available to help run the registration drives and administer the oath to eligible students.
We know that many of our youth are truly committed to improving our country and re-energizing our democracy. We also know that the young adults who graduate from our high schools and colleges today will be the political leaders of the future. Letís help them get off to a good start by making sure that they are registered to vote before they leave school.
For more information about High School Voter Registration Week or to download Vermontís voter registration form visit the Secretary of Stateís website govotevermont.com or call us at 800-439-8683.
Honoring Vermontís Centennial Nonprofits
Markowitz, Secretary of State
This past week we honored 22 of Vermontís oldest nonprofit organizations at our third annual Centennial Nonprofit Awards ceremony. We established the Centennial Nonprofit Awards to acknowledge Vermontís 100 year nonprofits for enriching Vermontís cultural, community and economic heritage. It is our hope that this program will enhance our understanding of how Vermontís nonprofits have contributed to our community life during the last hundred years.
Of Vermontís nearly 8,000 nonprofits there are five that are celebrating their 100th anniversary this year, and there are nearly 200 others that are over 100 years old. The nonprofits we honored ranged from large health institutions to churches, small all-volunteer cemetery associations, and civic organizations. All of these nonprofit organizations represent the dedication of tens of thousands of individual Vermonters who have joined together to pursue some larger good.
It is interesting to think back to what the world was like when our centennial nonprofits were established. In 1907 we had a governor from Walden, Vermont - Charles J. Bell. His claim to fame was proclaiming Thursday, November 24, as Thanksgiving Day. Teddy Roosevelt was president; Oklahoma was just admitted as the 46th state; and two of the greatest inventions of all times took place in 1907- the invention of the automatic washer and dryer and Hershey Chocolate Kisses. The first radio broadcast of a musical composition was aired and the United Parcel Service (UPS) began as a bicycle delivery service in Seattle.
In the late 1800s there was a general exodus from Vermont to states that were experiencing more of the industrial revolution. But, by 1907 things were going pretty well in Vermont - primarily due to the rising fortunes of milk. As farmers produced more they were able to live a better and less isolated life. Cars were more common and electricity became more available in rural areas.
During this time of relative prosperity it is not surprising that the Brown Public Library was established in Northfield and the Visiting Nurses Associations were established in White River Junction and Chittenden/Grand Isle County to provide medical support to growing communities.
Letís come back to the present. Many of the challenges facing our communities at the turn of the 20th century still exist at the turn of the 21st century. How do we ensure that everyone has the basic necessities of a good life Ė a warm home, healthy food, access to medical care, a good education? How do we support the arts and the institutions that protect and preserve our history and promote our political way of life? Now, in 2007 Ė we see that our nonprofits retain a vital role in our communities.
While national trends suggest fewer Americans participate in civic life, we can feel proud that Vermonters volunteer at higher than average rates. Vermont is also home to the largest number of charitable nonprofits per capita of any state. Vermonters clearly value the opportunity to contribute to their communities through nonprofit organizations. And clearly, the nonprofit sector is an important contributor to the quality of life in our state.
We know that it takes a lot of work to keep an organization afloat for even just a few years. I think we can all agree that it is a remarkable feat to survive as a nonprofit for over 100 years! We salute our Centennial nonprofits whose commitment to their missions has withstood the challenges of time!
Vermonters Lose With Unlimited
Contributions to Political Campaigns
Citizen confidence in our political system is the cornerstone of our democracy. Thatís why, as Secretary of State, I work so hard to instill in Vermonters a faith in our election systems. And yet, it is an uphill battle. There is nothing worse than hearing from Vermonters who are cynical about what government will do for them - because of the sense that special interests can buy the very people voters elect to promote the public interest. That is why I was surprised and dismayed by the Governorís veto of the Campaign Finance Reform Bill.
Over the past year the Secretary of Stateís office worked closely with the Attorney General's office and legislative counsel to address the concerns of the United States Supreme Court, while crafting a bill that would ensure our political system is above the potentially corrupting influence of large amounts of money. S.164 was guided by hours of expert testimony and a careful review of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down Vermont's previous campaign finance law.
The resulting bill would have ensured that our political system will be responsive to the voices of all Vermonters, not just to those individuals and interests wealthy enough to finance large parts of a candidate's campaign. The Campaign Finance Reform Bill would have refocused our electoral process on the positive and independent grassroots activities that strengthen our democracy and inspire confidence in the political process. And, importantly, it would have closed the loophole in current law that permits the state and national political parties to pour an unlimited amount of money into Vermontís political campaigns, greatly increasing the cost of running for office in this small state.
Attorney General Bill Sorrell and I believe that, with the failure to pass a new campaign finance law, we will revert back to the pre-1997 law, but that position is legally tenuous. Regardless, what is certain is that the pre-1997 campaign finance contribution limits are out of date and don't reflect Vermont values.
As long as people still believe that big money drives politics, we will all lose. Next year, I hope the legislature will again defy this trend to craft a campaign finance bill that will honor our healthy, independent, grassroots political tradition. And I hope that the Governor will step up to the plate to be a productive part of the discussion. That will be a win for all Vermonters.
Wednesday, July 25, 2007 (10:00 AM)
Good morning. Thank you for the opportunity to offer some insights on S.1487, the Ballot Integrity Act of 2007, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
I am Vermont Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, also Immediate Past President of the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS). NASS represents the majority of our nationís chief state election officials, 35 of whom are Secretaries of State. While our members represent a diverse array of constituencies, they are united in the belief that federal, state, and local government must work in partnership to effectively serve our citizens.
It is important to remember that every state faces different challenges as it seeks to improve the administration of elections and meet the mandates of existing federal and state laws. As Secretary of State of Vermont I have not had to grapple with many of the challenges faced by my colleagues across the country who have had to replace outdated voting equipment. Vermont is a small and rural state with fewer than 450,000 registered voters. We run our elections using paper and pen; and in all but 80 of our jurisdictions we count those votes by hand. The rest of our communities use optical scan tabulators. We have a vote-by-phone ballot marking system available in every polling place to ensure that our elections are accessible to people with disabilities.
While we are proud of our tradition of smooth-running elections, we know in Vermont that the success of an election is as much about the people who administer the election as the equipment that is used for counting the votes. Indeed, this past November we found that even hand-counting paper ballots has its risks. A statewide recount in our race for Auditor brought to light clerical errors in hand-tabulated vote totals. The result was a change in the outcome of the race.
My colleagues and I understand that you are committed to studying election reforms here in the Senate and we know of several major proposals in the House. The most important question is whether now is the time for Congress to be amending the Help America Vote Act of 2002, especially considering the fact that voting in the presidential primaries will begin in just six months.
As most of you probably know, the 2008 presidential nominating schedule is the most front-loaded in U.S. history. Twenty-nine states are already on track to vote in January or Februaryómore than three times the number that did so in 2000óand that number could grow by at least seven more. Because of this front loading, in about a dozen states, a separate primary election for state and federal offices will need to be administered. This is all in addition to preparing for the presidential, congressional and state elections that are to be held on November 4, 2008.
As we are getting ready for the 2008 election cycle, most states are still dealing with outstanding legal and procedural issues related to the implementation of HAVA. High-profile legal cases have included challenges to new photo ID laws in Georgia, Indiana, and Missouri; challenges to voter registration laws in Florida and Ohio; and a challenge in California regarding the accessibility of voting equipment for disabled voters. Most of the lawsuits name Secretaries of State as defendants and require considerable time and resources to deal with them.
I could go on, but suffice to say, election officials are facing some major challenges in 2008. Therefore, as you consider new federal legislation that will impact state and local governments, we urge you to keep the following principles in mind:
1. Provide reasonable timeframes for
implementation. For all the
reasons mentioned a moment ago, Secretaries of State feel strongly that
we should not be making dramatic changes to our election systems and
processes for 2008. S.1487 includes implementation deadlines that are
more reasonable than those offered in other bills that we have seen, but
the paper trail equipment described in this bill does not exist for all
types of voting systems. My colleagues and I do not want to wind up
trying to meet federal deadlines only to find ourselves forced to
purchase equipment that has not gone through the rigors of testing and
3. Gather essential input from state and local officials impacted by legislation. We commend you and the committee staff for working hard to reach out to state and local election officials. We encourage you to continue this practice. Secretaries of State have valuable input regarding election administration and we hope to be viewed as a resource when Congress is considering changes to our system.
4. Allow for maximum flexibility and avoid preemptions of state authority. Federal legislation should not curtail state innovation and authority solely for the sake of creating uniform methods among the states. The legal and historical authority for administering elections exists primarily with states and localities and consequently, all legislation should grant states maximum flexibility in determining how to properly and effectively carry out the law and satisfy federally-dictated outcomes.
I share this committeeís goals in ensuring that the nationís elections are transparent and accurate and that there is accountability in the system. With this in mind, I have reviewed S.1487 and make the following specific comments and suggestions based on my nine years of experience overseeing the elections in Vermont:
One thing we have learned in Vermont is that no election system is perfect. However, with careful planning and with a commitment to transparency and accountability throughout the process, we can ensure that our elections run smoothly, and that the people in our state trust the integrity of the process and the legitimacy of the results. I know you share that goal.
I would like to thank Senator Feinstein and the rest of the Committee for allowing me to testify before you today. I appreciate your willingness to hear testimony from a Secretary of State, and I know that my colleagues around the country would thank you as well.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007 (2:00 PM)
Testimony by Vermont Secretary of State Deb Markowitz
Good afternoon Chairwoman Lofgren and committee members. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you this afternoon about Vermontís experience with no excuse early and absentee voting.
I am Vermont Secretary of State Deb Markowitz. I have served as Vermontís Secretary of State for nearly a decade, and during that time we have seen a significant increase in the use of early and absentee voting. When I was first elected in 1998, approximately 10% of Vermont voters chose to vote by absentee ballot. In contrast, during this past mid-term election over 20% of our voters voted without going to the polls.
Vermont is a small and rural state with fewer than 450,000 registered voters. We run our elections in our towns, using paper and pen; and in 154 out of 246 towns we count ballots by hand. The remaining 92 towns use optical scan tabulators. We have a vote-by-phone ballot marking system available in every polling place to ensure that our elections are accessible to people with disabilities.
The principal points I would like to make in this testimony is that our experience shows that Vermont voters like the convenience of voting early in person or by mail; our election administrators like no excuse absentee voting because it reduces lines on election day; we have had few issues with voter fraud; and there are steps states can take to help reduce voter error and to deter fraud.
History of absentee ballot voting in Vermont:
Like many states, Vermont first adopted a law to permit absentee voting in 1863 to enable Vermonters serving in the Civil War to vote. Part of the law was struck down by the Vermont courts, but the use of absentee ballots for federal elections was upheld. In 1919, the law was expanded to allow soldiers, students attending schools in other states, and those out of state on work related jobs, the right to vote in Vermont elections, though absent from Vermont.
By the 1950s the right to vote by absentee ballot had been extended to all voters who: ďby reason of illness, injury, physical disability, religious principle, or necessary absence from his town of residence during the hours the polls are open, expects to be unable to attend in person at the polling place.Ē And in 1986 the Vermont General Assembly authorized the use of absentee ballots for residents of state institutions, such as the Vermont State Hospital and correctional facilities.
By the 1990s approximately five percent of Vermont voters voted by absentee ballot. It was not until 1993 that a Vermont voter could simply request an absentee ballot for convenience. After this change was implemented the rate of absentee voting rose to approximately 10%.
In 2000 my office began a public education campaign to ensure that Vermontís voters knew about their right to vote by absentee ballot. The ďVote Early Ė Vote by Mail: Just Vote!Ē campaign was conducted in partnership with our cities and towns, our public libraries, Vermontís business community, labor unions, the Vermont Commission on Women and our community action agencies. Using posters, flyers, public service announcements, and cable access programs, we worked to educate voters about their right to choose to vote early or by mail using the absentee ballot. As a result of these efforts, 19% of Vermont voters voted by absentee ballot in the 2000 election. In response to the success of this campaign, the Vermont legislature decided to change the name of the ballot to ďEarly or Absentee BallotĒ in order to emphasize that any voter may choose to vote early or by mail.
In the 2006 election over 20% of Vermont voters chose to vote by early or absentee ballot.
How it works in Vermont:
Vermont voters may begin to vote 30 days before the election. Requests for an early voter absentee ballot can be made at any time until 5:00 p.m. or the closing of the town clerk's office on the day before the election. The request can be made at the same time the person registers to vote, so long as the voter registration application and absentee ballot request are submitted by 5:00 p.m. on the Wednesday before election day.
Any voter or a voterís health care worker or family member may make a request for an early voter absentee ballot by telephone, in person or in writing, for the ballot to be mailed to the voter. Another person who is authorized by the voter to act on his or her behalf may also request an absentee ballot to be mailed to the voter, but this request must be made in writing, signed by the person who is making the request. A voter may make one request for a primary and general election, but will need to make a new request for each new election cycle.
A voter may pick up a ballot for him or herself from the town clerk to return by mail, or in person; or the voter may vote early at the town clerkís office by filling out an absentee ballot and leaving it at the clerkís office for counting on election day.
On election day, absentee ballots are delivered to sick or disabled voters by a bipartisan pair of justices of the peace who will wait while the voter fills out the ballot, and who will assist the voter on request, and who will then return the ballot to the polls for counting.
All absentee ballots may be returned by mail or by hand by the voter or by a person authorized by the voter. The ballots must be returned to the town clerkís office prior to election day, or to the polls on election day. All absentee ballots that are returned by the close of the polls on election day are counted, unless the outer envelope is not properly signed, or unless the ballot is otherwise spoiled.
Our municipal clerks keep a record of voters who have requested an absentee ballot. This record includes information about who made the request, the date that the absentee ballot is mailed to the voter and the date the ballot is returned. This list is a part of the public record, and is checked by the political parties on a daily basis leading up to the election. Once a ballot is received by the town it is considered voted and the voter may not take it back to vote a new ballot.
Vermontís election administrators encourage the use of early and absentee voting because it reduces lines on election day and helps ease administrative pressures by spreading the work over the 30 day early voting period. On election day the voterís name is checked off the voter registration rolls, the absentee ballots are opened by bi-partisan pairs of election workers and are commingled to preserve the privacy of the voter. Before the polls open for voters, during the slower times during the day, and after the close of polls at 7:00 p.m., the election workers place the ballot in the ballot box or feed the ballots into the optical scan machine until they are all counted. All absentee ballots returned by the close of the polls on election day are counted.
In Vermont we have procedures in place that are designed to prevent problems that could arise from the use of early and absentee voting.
∑ Voters who change their mind. Sometimes early voters change their mind in the waning days before an election and wish to take back their returned absentee ballot. Once a ballot is received back it is considered voted and cannot be returned to the voter or spoiled so that a voter can vote a new ballot. Any state that permits early voting must educate the voters about the voterís responsibility to be sure about their vote before returning their ballot.
∑ Lost ballots. Every election we have voters who have lost or misplaced an absentee ballot. Because our local election workers keep complete records of both the sending and the return of a ballot, a voter who has lost a ballot may sign a sworn affidavit to that effect, and he or she will be given a new ballot to vote. In the event that both ballots are returned, the second ballot received will be considered spoiled. States must have a clear rule about how it will handle lost ballots.
∑ Over-enthusiastic campaign workers. Campaign workers often encourage voters to request absentee ballots. We require that when a request is make through a third party (other than a family member or health care worker) the request must be in writing signed by the third party, and include contact information for the person who has made the request. This ensures that we can identify and hold responsible individuals who might be abusing the absentee voting system. In the last election we were able to quickly identify campaigns that were making requests on behalf of voters without the voterís permission.
∑ Fraud. Public education is a critical component of fraud prevention. People must be told that voting on behalf of another person, even a family member, violates the law. In addition, to prevent fraud, states should ensure that ballots are mailed directly to the voter. Only the voter should be allowed to pick up his or her own ballot in advance of the election. When election workers deliver ballots to people who are sick or have a disability they should do so in bipartisan pairs. The record of who has requested an absentee ballot, when a ballot was mailed and when it was returned to the town for counting should be made public to encourage the identification and reporting of possible fraud. Finally, every report of possible fraud must be investigated and, if fraud is found, there must be enforcement of the applicable laws.
∑ Privacy. To preserve the privacy of the absentee voter the ballots are separated from the identifying envelope and commingled with other absentee ballots before they are placed into the ballot box or fed into the optical scan machines. This is done by bipartisan pairs of election workers to ensure privacy and to prevent election workers from changing or destroying ballots.
∑ Election worker training and public education is important! We have found that the best way to prevent problems with early and absentee voting is through voter education and election worker training.
It is important to remember that every state faces different challenges as it seeks to improve the administration of elections and meet the mandates of existing federal and state laws. That being said, I believe our experience with no excuse absentee voting could be instructive as this Congress considers whether no excuse early and absentee voting is appropriate for the rest of the country.
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