Greg Marchildon: Will it be safe to vote at the polls? Vermont can fix that.

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Vermonters need to vote this year, but will it be safe to go to the polls with social distancing worries? Will older Vermonters and others shy away? How will that affect voter turnout and election results?

Fortunately, this is a problem we can fix with a little Vermont grit! With quick action by state officials we can safeguard our health, safety, and our right to vote in the upcoming August primary and November general election.

Vermont should take action now to ensure that all registered voters can cast their ballots safely. Here in Vermont, voters over the age of 50 made up 63 percent of all voters in 2018 and 59 percent nationwide. Moreover, people over the age of 65 show up to the polls far more than any other age group. However, it is this same age demographic that is far more vulnerable to COVID-19 than younger voters. COVID-19 is killing older people - regularly, reliably and in greater numbers than younger Vermonters. Our elders know that and are rightly reluctant to go anywhere there might be large groups or close quarters.

We need to protect Vermont's voters, election officials, and volunteers who staff polling locations, many of whom are retirees. Vermont should start now to implement alternative means for a voter to cast their ballot - such as voting from home. Older Vermonters should not have to risk their lives or their health to exercise their right to vote. AARP Vermont is recommending that the state take steps to send an absentee ballot to all registered voters in Vermont. This would be especially helpful for those in long-term care centers, medical facilities, or quarantined due to the virus.

The idea of voting from home is straightforward: Every registered voter receives a ballot via mail to their home address, then after making their choices, voters mail it back or drop it off. Those who want to go to the polls to vote in person can still do so. In the midst of this pandemic, it's an adjustment that we need to make. When it comes to something as important as exercising our right to vote, we should err on the side of caution. Studies show voting by mail can significantly increase voter turnout. And, by the way, 30 percent of Vermonters already vote by absentee ballot!

We can't just wait and see! The state, towns and organizations like AARP need time to educate the public on the procedure. We need clear instructions now. Likewise, the prospect of printing and distributing thousands of ballots is not something that can be arranged overnight - nor even in a matter of weeks. With a primary in August and a general election in November those preparations must happen now.

Let's ensure Vermonters can cast their ballots and do so safely. It's a no-brainer!

Greg Marchildon is the AARP Vermont state director.



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