Legislative Report 5/28/2020 - Ensuring Our Right to Vote

Note: This article was also published as a Word in the House article in The Citizen.

Our United States Constitution guarantees American citizens many rights, most notably those contained in the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights. The right of every eligible citizen to vote is fundamental to our democracy and ensures that our other rights are protected by holding government accountable. While originally reserved only for free male citizens of age 21 or older, the right to vote was extended over time by subsequent amendments to freed male slaves, women, and citizens of age 18 and older.  In fact, this year is the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote.

After the Civil War and up until the 1960s African Americans’ right to vote was suppressed by southern states through the use of poll taxes and literacy tests. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated those measures in those states and jurisdictions with a history of discrimination, and any changes to their voting laws required federal oversight (preclearance). However, in 2013 a divided Supreme Court struck down the preclearance clause of the act. This allowed a wave of measures enacted by many conservative states to make it harder to vote or skewed the vote by redrawing districts, a practice known as gerrymandering.  Requiring voter IDs, reducing the number of polling places in minority-heavy districts, and mass purges of names from voter lists have all eroded this fundamental element of our democracy.

On the other hand, many states, including Vermont, have made it easier for eligible citizens to vote. Five states conduct all elections by mail: Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Utah. Vermont allows people to register to vote right up to voting day.  We maintain a statewide voter database to reduce duplication of registration. We allow absentee and early voting to begin 45 days before the election. Several weeks ago, in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, Wisconsin voters had to risk their health by standing in line to vote in person because the Wisconsin Supreme Court would not allow absentee voting without a valid excuse. Subsequently, a University of Wisconsin study found a “statistically and economically significant association” between in-person voting and the spread of COVID-19 after the election.

We don’t know at this time whether COVID-19 will still be widespread at the time of the primary election in  August and the general election in November. Vermont has been relatively successful in suppressing the spread of the virus.  As the restrictions on social participation are relaxed, we hope that we will not see a second wave of infections.  However, we can’t take that for granted.  We should be preparing now for both elections to be held primarily by mail. House bill H.681, which passed both the House and Senate and was signed into law by Governor Scott, gives the Secretary of State temporary authority to change the way we hold elections during the COVID-19 emergency.

Secretary of State Jim Condos in consultation with Governor Scott is exploring options for the primary and general elections. This will certainly include an expansion of Vermont’s existing early and absentee voting system. It’s a safe and secure process that allows any registered voter to cast a ballot by mail and is the method recommended for Charlotte’s budget and trails vote on June 23rd. (You can vote now!) The polls will still be open on election day in some safe, modified way for people who prefer to vote in person.

As individuals we can prepare now for whatever form future elections take. The first step is to visit the “My Voter Page” (https://mvp.vermont.gov/) of the Secretary of State’s website. You’ll see two green buttons where you can register to vote or confirm that you’re registered to vote. If you know you’re registered to vote, but the site says you’re not, then check with our Town Clerk.  I was unable to find my record and called the Town Clerk’s office. I learned that my birth date was set to 1/1/1900 in the database, which was easily corrected.  Then I was able to confirm my registration on the website.  You can also verify that your address is correct, which is important if ballots will be mailed. Finally, you can always ask for a mail-in ballot by calling our Town Clerk.

Vermont has a better record of voter turnout than most states, ranking 11th in 2018 with a 56% showing. Absentee ballots accounted for about 30% of votes cast in both the 2016 and 2018 general elections. Vermonters take their commitment to democracy seriously.  We will not let even a pandemic get between us and that commitment.

I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone calls (802-233-5238).

Legislative Report 5/14/2020 - Navigating the Unemployment System Jungle

We are now two months into the societal shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it honestly feels much longer.  It’s seems hard to remember when we nonchalantly shook hands, greeted others with hugs and pats on the back, and could see the faces of folks we encountered in a grocery store. It isn’t bad enough that the pandemic economy shutdown has caused unprecedented job losses, but help for many of those who lost jobs or their businesses or had their hours cut back has been tangled up in a jungle of bureaucracy compounded by a 50-year old, antiquated computer system.  Because of the success of Vermont’s response to the pandemic in flattening the curve and avoiding an overwhelmed health care system, Governor Scott is gradually “opening the spigot,” as he puts it, to allow some businesses to reopen while maintaining proper hygienic measures.

However, the problems with unemployment assistance continue to plague many Vermonters who are having trouble obtaining the benefits they are owed and are running out of money.  There are several reasons for this situation that amounted to a perfect storm for the Vermont Department of Labor (VDOL). (It should be noted that most other states are having similar issues.)  Take the age of the computer system that handles unemployment claims.  It is running on a mainframe computer that was state of the art in the 1970s but is woefully outdated now.  It is programmed in a language called COBOL. Programmers familiar with COBOL are long-retired or about to retire.  Large scale updates to the software are not feasible or practical.  Two attempts over the last decade to replace the system, both of which were part of a consortium of several states to share the cost of development, have not been successful.

So, now we’re stuck with an inadequate system that was working fine when there were 200 to 400 applications per week but can’t handle the 87,000 that were generated en masse since mid-March. The 65 regular VDOL employees who input and process claims were overwhelmed.  Calling into the department became virtually impossible. Since the initial flood of claims, 200 additional personnel were hired, including a call center firm called Maximus.  At the same time, the federal CARES Act allowed self-employed persons, who don’t qualify under the regular system because they don’t contribute to the unemployment insurance (UI) fund, to sign up for benefits. As a result, a new, unfamiliar Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) system had to be set up alongside the UI system to handle an additional 17,000 claims.  To complicate things further the relaxed rules for claiming unemployment were relaxed were not reflected in the programming which caused some applicants to be incorrectly disqualified.

Every one of the 180 members of the Vermont House and Senate have heard from constituents who are rightly frustrated at their inability to navigate the jungle that is currently the state’s unemployment system.  After hearing from constituents for weeks, the House created a spreadsheet to allow legislators to record the complaints and situations of their constituents for referral to a special Labor Department team.  In addition, 24 legislators have volunteered to assist in connecting claimants on that list to appropriate department employees. The Labor Department has also taken steps to reverse negative eligibility codes received by many applicants. As of May 10th, 54,000 of the 61,000 UI claimants determined to be eligible have been paid, and 8,600 of the 17,000 PUA claimants have received payment. Both the administration and the legislature know that more must be done, and we are working cooperatively to achieve that for our constituents.  Be well, stay safe, and persist.

I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone calls (802-233-5238). 

Legislative Report 4/30/2020 - The Legislature Continues Its Work Remotely

The daffodils and hyacinths are finally blooming in the yard, the ground isn’t quite as soggy as it was last week, and May is upon us. Ironically, unemployment is at depression-level highs around the world as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here in Vermont, the infection and hospitalization levels have been well-controlled as a result of steps taken early by Governor Scott under the direction of Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine and State Epidemiologist Patsy Kelso.  The curve has been flattened, allowing some easing of restrictions on outdoor work like landscaping and construction if social distancing and hygienic guidelines are observed. And the difficulty many Vermonters who tried to apply for unemployment benefits experienced should now be easing with additional personnel staffing the Department of Labor. Anyone still having a problem should contact me to see if I can help.

The legislature finally met in session using Zoom to approve the change to House Rules allowing us to vote remotely and to pass several key bills related to the health crisis. The change of rules required a 3/4 majority approval to take effect, and the vote was unanimous by the 147 legislators in attendance. With that approval, the House took up four bills pertaining to changes in the law for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency.  These bills provide for the administration of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program which relates directly to independent contractors and others who are self-employed, permit remote execution of a will and notarization of documents without having to be in direct contact with other people, and provide our State Treasurer with tools to proactively manage State and local cash flow needs. We expect to hold more floor sessions in the weeks ahead. You can watch recordings of House meetings, and live floor sessions, by following our legislative page on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCC1w34Iyg1vB_HT6dt_4eMA

This is an unusual session for many reasons, not the least of which is the uncertainty of the financial future.  The economic fallout will certainly reduce revenues coming into the state from income and corporate taxes, sales and use taxes, and transportation fuel taxes. Since all sales and use taxes now go into the Education Fund, there will be less money to support the school budgets that have been passed. There is also a lot of uncertainty about what aid the federal government will provide to the states.  As the legislature adapts to all this uncertainty, we will work to pass an interim budget that will get Vermont through the first quarter of the next fiscal year (FY21). The plan is to adjourn in late May or early June and return in August to pass a more complete budget for FY21.

In the meantime, the proposed closure of three Vermont State College campuses last week surprised everyone and created an immediate backlash. While the legislature in recent years provided less funding for the VSC system than requested, its costs have mounted, and the current crisis has exacerbated the deficit,  The backlash by students, faculty, the public, the Governor and legislators caused the proposal to be withdrawn. The legislative leadership of the House and Senate have committed to taking a serious look at VSC configuration as well as funding. VSC must provide an affordable and accessible opportunity for post-secondary students across Vermont to get a college degree.  

I will be hosting a Virtual Town Hall via Zoom this Friday, May 1, at 6:00 p.m.* Send me an email if you want to participate. I am happy to help in any way I can if you are having difficulty accessing state services. I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone calls (802-233-5238). 

* This meeting notice was published prior to May 1.