MONTPELIER — Responding to COVID-19 and its public safety threat, Gov. Phil Scott signed a bill that will allow municipalities and school districts to hold town meeting votes by Australian ballot to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus.
The governor signed the legislation into law Friday, but not without some words urging state lawmakers to advance the cause of expanded mail-in balloting.
He said in a statement Friday afternoon that he signed S. 172 “because I believe public concerns regarding large gatherings may discourage some who would otherwise participate in Town Meetings and alternative arrangements will help increase voter turnout.”
But, Scott said, the House and Senate should have included expanding automatic mailing of ballots beyond general elections to include school budget votes, local elections and primary elections.
“General elections already have the highest voter turnout. What we need is increased voter participation for elections like those on Town Meeting Day or school budget votes, which experience a fraction of the turnout of general elections,” Scott said.
He pressed the legislators and secretary of state to open the process to all elections in Vermont.
“Please know I’m willing to work with you to fund this initiative,” Scott said.
The new law is viewed as essential to allow town clerks, and town and school boards, to plan for Town Meeting Day on March 1.
It allows cities, towns and school districts to hold annual meetings by Australian ballot rather than floor meetings, and move the meeting to a potentially safer date later in the year.
The bill also provides for electronic informational meetings to be held in advance of Australian ballot voting. But it does not allow towns to permanently replace the floor meeting with polling place voting.
The law also allows the town of Brattleboro to hold its annual Town Meeting electronically.