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Vermont Democratic Secretary of State candidates debate election issues

Screenshot of VTDigger's Vermont Secretary of State debate
Screenshot of VTDigger's Vermont Secretary of State debate

All of Vermont’s top constitutional offices are up for election this year. Incumbent Secretary of State Jim Condos announced on February 15th that he would not seek re-election. The three candidates seeking to replace the Democrat debated Tuesday evening.

The Democratic primary candidates — Montpelier City Clerk John Odum, Vermont House Representative Sarah Copeland Hanzas of Bradford and Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters — debated virtually as part of a VTDigger series.

In opening statements Copeland Hanzas said she is running to make sure all Vermonters have their voices heard in elections. Winters said he knows what is at stake as election integrity comes under attack. Odum wants to bring a new model of election cybersecurity to the office.

The candidates were immediately asked what they think is the greatest threat to Vermont elections and how the office should address the issue.

Odum said foreign mischief is damaging elections.

“As a certified ethical hacker I can tell you the local clerks who run our elections are uniquely at risk for attacks from foreign interests. What I would want to do is create a new paradigm whereby first of all we put out dedicated computer systems, secure, lock down that avenue.”

Chris Winters feels the problem is more internal.

“Seven, almost eight years ago, I would have said cyberattacks were the greatest threat. It’s still a threat. But today I’d say the greatest threat that we have is the weakened confidence voters have in our elections processes. I’ve been on the front lines defending against the misinformation and intentional disinformation campaigns designed to undermine our democratic process.”

Representative Copeland Hanzas says there is more than one threat facing elections but the greatest is a lack of reasoned discourse.

“We see active voter suppression, elections deniers working to infiltrate Secretaries of State offices across the country, intentional misinformation trying to erode people’s trust in democracy. I think the single biggest threat is that we no longer know how to disagree with each other without being disagreeable.”

Ranked Choice Voting is being considered as a potential voting system for specific races in Vermont. VTDigger Political Reporter Lola Duffort quizzed the candidates about their opinions regarding the system.

“Lawmakers this legislative session considered and ultimately dropped a proposal to move Vermont to a Ranked Choice Voting system in federal elections. But advocates say they’ll try again next year. Would you support Vermont shifting to a system in which voters get to rank their candidates in order of preference? City Clerk Odum you get to go first.”

“The advocate in me has always been for Ranked Choice Voting," responded Odum. "The election administrator in me has great concerns. As a clerk I try to imagine doing a hand recount in a Ranked Choice Voting election. But having said that the problems are problems that can be solved. Ranked Choice Voting is the right thing to do.”

Duffort turns to the next candidate, "Representative Copeland Hanzas."

"Thank you. I do support Ranked Choice Voting and if I become Secretary of State I will move to enact Ranked Choice Voting for our presidential primary in 2024." said Hanzas. "Vermonters would be able to use that presidential primary race as an opportunity to see how ranked choice works and then we can have a conversation about adopting it more broadly.”

Duffort turns to the third candidate, “Deputy Secretary Winters."

The short answer is yes," answers Winters. "I am also in favor of Ranked Choice Voting and think we ought to bring it to Vermont. There are so many positives that come along with Ranked Choice Voting: ensuring majority support for winners, reducing negative campaigning, allowing voters to vote their conscience instead of voting strategically. I think we need to continue the conversation about Ranked Choice Voting in 2023.”

Managing Editor Paul Heintz asked the candidates about redistricting.

“In Vermont, as in most states, the legislature has the final say on redistricting. Should the redistricting process change? And we will start with Deputy Secretary Winters on this one.”

“I think the legislature did a great job this year. It seemed very bipartisan, tri-partisan. But overall I do believe we should have some reform to make an independent redistricting commission, take that decision out of the legislature’s hands, have it be done by people who aren’t directly affected by the drawing of those districts.”

Heintz gives the next candidate an opportunity to respond. “City Clerk Odum."

"I think the legislature’s done a pretty good job but it’s something we need to stay vigilant about because it’s not ideal to have that particular body being in charge of that particular issue." Odum adds, "And if we ever did have issues with gerrymandering yeah it could turn on a dime.”

Heintz directs the topic to the third candidate. “Finally to you Representative Copeland Hanzas."

"This year I was chair of the committee that led the legislative reapportionment process," noted Hanzas. "Our process was very open and fair.”

Audio is courtesy of VTDigger. The online investigative newspaper has not scheduled debates for the Republican or Progressive primary for Secretary of State because there is only one candidate in each of those races. The debate was co-sponsored by the Vermont NEA.

Primary day is August 9.