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From Vermont to Kentucky, some Republicans expand voting access in 2021

5 minute read

Vermont governor Phil Scott speaks to the press in his offices at the State Legislature in Montpelier, Vermont, U.S., March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

WASHINGTON, June 7 (Reuters) - Vermont's Republican governor on Monday signed a law requiring the state's top election official to send a mail ballot to every eligible voter, becoming one of the few Republican leaders at the state level to buck their party's trend of trying to limit voting access.

The law signed by Governor Phil Scott makes permanent a universal mail-in voting system that Vermont adopted in 2020 to address the challenges to voting in person during the COVID-19 pandemic. It puts Vermont in the company of just six other U.S. states that automatically mail ballots to all eligible voters.

Republicans have passed a wave of new voting requirements and limits this year in battleground states such as Georgia, Florida and Arizona, citing a need to stamp out alleged electoral fraud that former President Donald Trump says, without evidence, cost him the November election.

Democrats and voting rights advocates have sued state officials over the measures and denounce them as partisan power grabs. State and federal judges have dismissed more than 50 lawsuits brought by Trump or his allies alleging fraud and other irregularities in November.

But some Republicans lawmakers and election officials in states that are less competitive in national elections, such as Vermont, Kentucky and Oklahoma, say their party should be making it easier to vote, not harder – and support legislation to do just that.

Pending bills to expand early voting and voter identification options in Louisiana and Indiana, both states Trump handily carried in November, also have Republican support.

"Republicans in Vermont reject the narrative being pushed out by Trumpers across the nation that making voting more accessible is ruining our democracy," said state senator Corey Parent, a Republican, who supported the universal mail-in voting bill that Scott signed into law on Monday.

"We have to win elections on our ideas, not through these other unfortunate measures," Parent told Reuters.

In November, Biden won Vermont with 66% of the vote.

Kentucky's Republican-controlled legislature passed a measure in April that expanded early voting and in-person voting options, created an online voter registration portal, and allowed voters to fix absentee ballots if they made errors.

In Oklahoma, the Republican-majority legislature and governor enacted a law in May extending early voting in general elections.

Voter advocates still criticize some elements of the laws. Eliza Sweren-Becker, a voting rights and elections counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, said the Kentucky law limited the period in which voters could apply for absentee ballots and created a process for purging voters from the rolls, while the Oklahoma law shortened the time in which voters could return absentee ballots.

Sweren-Becker said the voting expansions in both states and Vermont reflect the fact that none of the states are highly competitive in general elections.

"When you're not in a state where the margins are expected to be so close, that same voter suppression motivation is not necessarily at play," she said.

Kentucky's Republican Secretary of State, Michael Adams, told Reuters voter fraud was not a major threat in Kentucky, though he acknowledged that some Kentuckians are concerned about it "because they have a lower level of knowledge about how elections work."

Adams said he worked with the state's Democratic governor to push voting reforms sought by both parties.

"This could have been a bill like what you saw in Texas or elsewhere, because the Republicans have super majorities, but they chose not to do that," he said.

In Oklahoma, the majority leader of the state House of Representatives, Republican Jon Echols, said he threw his support behind the expansion to early voting after seeing hours-long lines at polling places in his district in November.

Like Adams, he saw no evidence of voter fraud in his state.

He said the legislature chose to move the deadline for requesting absentee ballots up to 15 days before an election from seven days previously, in accordance with recommendations the U.S. Postal Service sent Oklahoma's election board last year. Echols said his own mail-in ballot was not counted in November because it did not arrive on time.

Reporting by Julia Harte, Editing by Soyoung Kim and Sonya Hepinstall

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