Georgia Town Offices, 8-11-2020 (copy) (copy)

Volunteers staff the polls in Georgia’s town office during the 2020 primaries.

MONTPELIER — Up to $2 million in COVID-19 relief funds have been earmarked for an anticipated move to balloted elections and possible mail-in elections this coming Town Meeting Day.

Vermont’s Joint Fiscal Committee agreed Tuesday to commit $2 million from what’s left of Vermont’s share of the CARES Act to help offset election costs as towns weigh balloted elections this coming Town Meeting Day, and as mail-in elections are again weighed in the legislature.

According to Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos and members of Gov. Phil Scott’s administration, the money would be needed regardless of whether Vermont’s legislatures would call for mail-in voting in the coming weeks in response to COVID-19’s ongoing surge.

Vermont Secretary of Administration Susanne Young said money from the appropriation would be needed to help towns cover the costs of purchasing blank Australian ballots and other printing and mailing expenses as they transition to balloted votes.

“Regardless of whether there’s any new policy adopted by the legislature over the next two weeks, there is existing authority for towns to move completely to Australian ballot because of COVID-19 and they may indeed incur additional printing and mailing expenses,” Young said.

Under existing laws passed in response to COVID-19, Vermont towns where municipal elections are historically held from the floor in traditional Town Meeting-style elections are allowed to temporarily conduct elections with Australian ballots with only the selectboard’s or village trustees’ approval.

While the legislation allowing for the Secretary of State to call for mail-in voting last year sunset with the calendar year, Vermont lawmakers are expected to consider legislation allowing both for delays to Town Meeting Day elections and the resumption of mail-in voting due to COVID-19.

Most of Franklin County’s larger communities and almost every school district in the county already conduct municipal elections through Australian ballots, where voters mark off their preferences on a pre-printed ballot sheet at a predesignated polling place.

For this coming Town Meeting Day, many of those towns in Franklin County still typically opting for in-person congregate meetings where municipal issues are discussed and voted on from the floor have by and large agreed to switch to Australian ballots this year.

In some communities, like St. Albans City and Fletcher, officials have also publicly discussed the possibility of mail-in voting should the legislature allow for it or call for it in the coming weeks amid a climbing number of COVID-19 cases.

Condos and the Scott administration initially asked for a $1.5 million allocation, the amount it took to pay postage for statewide mail-in voting during November’s general election, according to Condos.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Condos sounded apprehensive about saying whether that would be enough to cover municipal elections, however, as towns were now on the hook for printing ballots and postage for far more decentralized Town Meeting Day elections.

In many cases, Vermont voters could see multiple ballots in March, as they vote on everything from town elections to school budgets and, in some places, in water and sewer district elections and in solid waste district elections.

Having so many competing elections, Condos said, could drive up the costs of conducting Town Meeting Day this year, especially if those elections don’t cleanly align or overlap with one another and lead to more ballots needing to be printed and processed.

“If those towns do not align their votes together,” Condos said, “we could fast use that money up and not have enough just to cover postage alone.”

According to testimony from Vermont’s finance commissioner, Adam Greshin, about $6 million remained from the roughly $1.2 billion allocated to Vermont through the CARES Act.

Vermont’s Joint Fiscal Committee unanimously agreed to the $2 million allocation, with the anticipation a reorganized committee following the resumption of the state legislature this week would be able to address other possible election costs once those are better understood later this year.

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