Changes to Election Laws (H.429) - April 7, 2023

The Senate Government Operations Committee took up H.429 on Friday. Harlan Smith was the first to speak. He has many family members in the military, including his son. He has also experienced that “certain members” of our community will, if they see you have not voted recently, push to have you deleted from the voter rolls.

He relayed a conversation with an official in the military who told him a system existed for electronic ballot submissions and was primarily in use for the disabled and visually impaired. He was excited to hear this, but that was over a year ago, and the system is still “waiting for approval.” For these reasons, he is in favor of the electronic voting provision of the bill as it relates to military members. He pointed to the use of use of electronic systems for securing loans and transmitting vehicle registration materials without leaving the house. He urged the Committee to “pass this option” for our military members.

Senator Clarkson asked if his son’s ballots have made it back in time from deployment, noting that “we allow so much time for this.” Smith shared that they had not, and his son has “given up trying.”

Rachel Seelig (Director, Disability Law Project) shared testimony next, stressing access to assistance for disabled persons. Additionally, sample ballots as replacement ballots are necessary for these groups.

Complicated ballots and unusual circumstances, like the recent Article 22 wording, are particularly troublesome and often require another human to read and interpret the ballot. This sacrifices some level of anonymity.

Senator Watson wondered about security and how that comes into play here.

Seelig pointed out that at the polls both privacy and anonymity are sacrificed already due to the need for a reader and other assistance. The electronic ballot offers all sorts of options to allow more security and privacy in that regard.

Susan Bellimer (President, Vermont Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind) joined via Zoom. She told a story about a resident of Burlington who asked his polling location if they had access to a TTY phone system and they had no idea what he was talking about. They suggested sending him to another polling place where they might know.

Thirteen other states have e-ballot return systems in place and, with a small security risk, it needs to be supported here, she said.

Asher Edelson (a Citizen from Bennington) shared that he has a form of Tourette’s Syndrome and he has shakes and tremors that interrupt his ability to speak occasionally, which is disruptive to his occupation as a teacher. He is very articulate and poised when he has command of his movements. He is a disability advocate and supports all the improvements in the bill. 

However, he wanted to speak specifically about OMNI Ballot system. It’s commonly used, he claimed, and would benefit military and disabled persons with options that do not exist today. Portability is also a benefit of this system as “some folks may not have access at home to technologies and accessible systems.”

It was funded and reviewed by the US Department of Defense, so OMNI ballot machines are used by soldiers, diplomats, etc. He noted that nothing is foolproof, even live voting as “people are involved.” The Cyber Security and Infrastructure Agency (CSIA) and Democracy Live are partners in developing OMNI. He believes that H.429 will make it possible for municipalities to access this technology.

Island Pinnick (Chief Technology Officer, Democracy Live) was the next witness and included an explanation of their flagship tablet product that is a ballot-marking device that is accessible to disabled persons and is portable. The tablets do not require an internet connection and undergo continuous penetration testing to ensure compliance and security.

A number of questions about security and accessibility of the system followed, but it was clear from testimony that these systems are pretty reliable and difficult to manipulate.

Bert Johnson (Professor of Political Science, Middlebury College) joined the Committee next to discuss campaign finance issues. He believed that, in regards to the $60k contribution limit to political parties, it was “unlikely that very many candidates will bump up against this limit.” He also noted that the provision raising contribution limits for campaigns to parties “can be seen as strengthening political parties and enhancing their ability to engage in Vermont campaigns.” Despite sentiments to the contrary, he claimed that political scientists generally see this as a good thing because parties have an ability to rally “normal people” around a cause and “make politics easier for people to understand.”

Senator Clarkson was excited about his testimony. She especially highlighted his “pro-party” statements. However, she lamented the “awful way” in which “parties are driving this terrible polarization.” Johnson responded that political parties are losing control of their nominating process and nominees. It began in the 1970s, he claimed, and has continued to this day.

Senator Hardy asked about an enforcement authority and if it should be independent of the Secretary of State’s office or Ethics Commission. He noted that California has such an independent system, much like the FEC.

Several others testified in support of assistive voting technologies and e-voting, including a security consultant who does penetration testing on the Democracy Live system. All were supportive.


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