Less than a week away from the midterm elections, 481,111 Vermonters are registered to vote. In October, the state reached a record high, with 92.5 percent of its eligible voters registered for the upcoming election, according to VTDigger. Vermont now leads the national registration rate by about 20 percent.
Vermont has been making a concerted effort to expand its voter rolls since January 2017, when the state instituted a new system allowing for automatic voter registration when receiving or renewing an ID at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Of the more than 30,000 new Vermonters who have registered to vote since that time, over 16,000 of them used the new system. With driver’s licenses set to be renewed every four years, the state expects to see a continued uptick of registration throughout the next few election cycles.
“The goal is we’re going to get as many eligible Vermonters as possible to be registered to vote,” Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos said in an interview with VTDigger.
Condos’s efforts are coming to fruition. More than 7,000 new voters have also registered through the state’s new online system, and flexible registration deadlines have also contributed to Vermont’s leading rates. Vermonters are permitted to register any day up until and including Election Day, a privilege only granted in 14 other states. The state allows for early voting and absentee ballots upon request.
“It’s just a way of making it easier for people to vote,” Condos told VTDigger.
Vermont is also one of just two states, along with Maine, that does not restrict felon voting rights. These states not only protect felons’ right to vote, but allow them to do so from behind bars via absentee ballots, according to NBC News.
It’s because of these factors that the MIT Elections Performance Index, a nonpartisan, empirical evaluation of state elections, recently ranked Vermont’s election management to be first in the nation.
It’s a great feat to reach a higher percentage of eligible voters than any other state, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the state will see the nation’s highest turnout rate on Nov. 6.
Despite Vermont’s record registration numbers, how many of the state’s automatically registered yet previously politically inactive citizens will actually go to the polls? The answer, according to Bert Johnson, professor of Political Science, is complicated. Although improved access to voting can only improve participation, he told The Campus, new voters are historically the least likely to turn out.
“Probably not all of them will, because without the habits in place to vote, you may not necessarily think to do it when Election Day comes,” Johnson said.
It doesn’t help that Vermont’s midterm elections are not particularly competitive, Johnson noted. Despite nationwide efforts to mobilize voters, turnout usually correlates with the closeness of the election. In Vermont, there are no closely contested U.S. House or Senate seats. Sen. Bernie Sanders is functionally uncontested in retaining his position, and Rep. Peter Welch is expected to be re-elected as well. The race for governor is slightly more competitive, as political newcomer Democrat Christine Hallquist challenges Republican incumbent Phil Scott. However, polls still show Scott at a solid 14 points ahead, making his re-election the more likely outcome at this point.
At the college, however, efforts to get out the vote have extended beyond state lines. Many student organizations are working toward greater voter registration and absentee ballot access, including the College Democrats, College Republicans, the Student Government Association and Sunday Night Environmental Group, among others. Most dedicated to this cause, though, has been MiddVote, a student-led non-partisan group whose main goal is to register as many students as possible before Nov. 6 and to provide the tools, information and assistance to get students to the polls.
Center for Community Engagement Program Director Ashley Laux ’06 has spearheaded MiddVote’s efforts throughout the fall election season, emphasizing the need to establish habits of political engagement that she hopes will follow students throughout their lives.
“MiddVote’s person-to-person, relationship-focused outreach has been very useful,” Laux said. “While of course this year is important, my overarching goal is supporting democracy initiatives.”
The group has also contributed to Vermont’s new voter registration record by reminding students that they can register to vote in Vermont at any time regardless of their home state — a message they plan to continue to spread up until Nov. 6.