MONTPELIER — The Vermont House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a bill allowing towns to move the date of Town Meeting Day or send ballots by mail, in order to protect residents from the COVID-19 pandemic.
With a tight timeline for local select boards, school districts and other civic boards, the bill passed on second reading 142-2 and earned unanimous approval on the formal third reading.
The state Senate could take up the bill, H. 48, as early as Wednesday, and it could move directly to the Senate Government Operations Committee for a quick turnaround and vote. Members of the House and Senate Government Operations Committees had been working on the bill since November, knowing time of was the essence.
The Senate Government Operations committee took testimony on the bill Tuesday afternoon. Sen. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland, told committee chairperson Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, that he did not expect Republicans would have any objection to suspending the rules to speed its passage.
As approved by the House, the bill allows towns to send ballots to registered voters in the same way as was done for last November’s presidential election, but does not mandate that towns do so.
It does, however, allow for towns to reschedule Town Meeting if they want to still hold it in person — for example, outdoors when the weather is better and more people have been vaccinated against the coronavirus.
The bill also allows for Brattleboro’s Representative Town Meeting to be held electronically rather than in person. Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Windham 2-1, thanked the Government Operations committee for “taking into account our unique and special governance arrangement.”
Kendal Smith, the director of policy development and legislative affairs, said Scott would like voting by mail to be mandatory rather than suggested, but added the lack of a mandate was not a deal-breaker for the governor.
Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, asked if the $2 million the state set aside for cities and towns to mail ballots would be enough to pay those costs. Smith said that according to her understanding from Secretary of State James Condos — and she stressed she was not speaking for Condos — that $2 million was set aside for postage costs, not for printing vote-by-mail ballots.