Vt. Democrats talk election security

LISA SCAGLIOTTI
Correspondent

Vermont’s voter registration practices and election system are strong and those who oversee its security are vigilant ahead of the 2020 election cycle, Vermont’s top elections official told a gathering of local Democrats in Shelburne this week.

Tuesday, Nov. 4, was Election Day across the nation with a few key contests in what was mostly an off year. In Vermont, a handful of communities held votes on local questions, but no statewide elections were held.

That left Secretary of State Jim Condos free to address a few dozen party activists from Shelburne and Charlotte who gathered for a Democratic fundraiser at Shelburne Vineyard Tuesday evening. 

“Don’t be fooled by the blueness of our state,” Condos said, pointing to sharp partisan rhetoric of Vermont GOP chairwoman Deb Billado. “She’s all in on (President Donald) Trump.”

Condos was joined by fellow Democrats House Speaker Mitzi Johnson of South Hero and state Treasurer Beth Pearce. Both state leaders looked ahead to the coming legislative session that kicks off in January and next year’s general election, in which every seat in the Vermont Legislature will be on the ballot.

Tuesday’s fundraiser was to support Democratic House candidates, Johnson said, in those Vermont districts currently held by Republicans.

“We picked up 12 seats last time,” the speaker said. “We’ve got a few more to go.”

Democrats hold a strong majority in both houses of the Vermont Legislature. Presently, the House has 95 Democrats and 43 Republican members; Progressives and Independents hold the remaining dozen seats. Democrats number 22 in the state Senate alongside six Republicans and two Progressives.

Condos told his family story of immigrant grandparents and his career in local and state politics from city councilor in South Burlington to state senator and then secretary of state since 2011.

Condos said online threats to election systems have become an issue in his time as secretary. “Now I eat, sleep and breathe cybersecurity,” he said.

Guarding against outside intrusions into state election data has become a function of his office since 2013, Condos said, recounting an incident in 2018 when an attempt to access data was detected from a source in Russia. That information was relayed to federal officials who subsequently put out a nationwide alert, he said.

Condos said Vermont’s system is well-protected from online threats due to its simplicity.

“The one thing that we have that we have that is so important – we have paper ballots,” he said.

Optical scanners are required in towns with at least 1,000 voters, but data from those scanners is kept on memory cards in town office vaults with “no wi-fi, no internet connection, no remote access,” Condos said.

A more realistic and subtle threat online today comes from social media posts planted by those looking to sway voter opinions, Condos noted.

“Disinformation is the name of the game these days,” he said. “They understand they can’t change our votes, but maybe they can change how we think about our votes.”

Condos criticized efforts in other states to purge voter rolls and enact greater restrictions on voter registration under the guise of combating fraud. “True voter fraud in this country is denying any eligible American the right to vote,” Condos said.

He said his recent yearlong stint as president of the National Association of Secretaries of State made him appreciate Vermont’s voter registration system as an example for other states. He touted Vermont’s same-day and online registration, its 45 days of early and absentee voting, and its allowing college students and 17 year-olds who will be 18 by the general election to vote in primaries. Those who are 16 and 17 getting driver’s licenses are also preregistered in the system so they are automatically registered when they turn 18, Condos noted.

“The opponents of all of these things want you to stay home,” Condos said, reminding those in the room to help get out the vote in 2020. “Grab your coworkers, friends, relatives, and get them to the polls on Election Day,” he said.

In her remarks, Speaker Johnson pointed to issues she hopes will dominate the 2020 legislative session, such as passing paid family leave and increasing the minimum wage; measures to address climate change, clean water and women’s reproductive rights also top her list.

And in a nod to the informal setting with attendees milling around the vineyard’s bar sipping wine and noshing on appetizers, Johnson shared some personal observations of her role.

“As a side note, can I just say how incredibly excited I am to share my title of ‘Madam Speaker’ with Nancy Pelosi?” she told the crowd, referring to the speaker of the U.S. House and Democratic Congresswoman from California.

Johnson got the biggest laugh of the evening when she shared an anecdote of attending an out-of-state leadership conference where she needed to explain her job. She said she summed it up with: “I’m the Nancy Pelosi of Vermont.”

Tuesday’s event was hosted by Democratic House members Kate Webb, of Shelburne, Jessica Brumsted, also of Shelburne whose district includes St. George, and Mike Yantachka representing his hometown of Charlotte and part of Hinesburg.

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