Home News and Features Four Candidates Vie for Open Secretary of State Position

Four Candidates Vie for Open Secretary of State Position

Tom McKone, far left, moderates a debate between (from left) Democrats John Odum, Chris Winters, and Sarah Copeland Hanzas and Republican H. Brooke Paige at the debate. Screenshot from video by Kingdom Access Television.
Four candidates gathered at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum on June 22 hoping to win the chance to replace outgoing Democratic Secretary of State Jim Condos. With the primary election coming up in August, the three Democrats appeared to work to set themselves apart from one another during the proceedings. The lone Republican will face the winner among the three Democrats in the general election.

Condos has been Secretary of State for 12 years, since January 2011, after serving time in the Senate. The candidate forum, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Vermont, was moderated by Tom McKone, former director of the Kellogg-Hubbard Library and a former principal and English teacher.

The three Democrats included Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters, Montpelier City Clerk John Odum, and Orange County representative Sarah Copeland Hanzas. The Republican, H. Brooke Paige, is also running for Attorney General, Auditor, and Treasurer. After introducing candidates, moderator McKone explained the process and posed the first question, which had been crafted by the Vermont League of Women Voters, “How would you prioritize the responsibilities of the Vermont Secretary of State given the current needs and concerns?

This question is particularly relevant because of the wide array of duties held by that office, to include overseeing candidate registration and elections, the Vermont State Archives and records administration, and professional licensing (such as accountants, pharmacists, opticians, beauticians/manicurists, real estate brokers, tattooists, and even professional boxers). The office is also the place where all corporations, businesses, nonprofits, and LLCs register and submit annual reports. Additionally, the Secretary of State’s office oversees notaries public; municipal laws and programs; and the administration, filing, and publication of all rules by state agencies.

Copeland Hanzas of Bradford said that because “our democracy is under threat” relative to elections deniers and other election problems, she would work to strengthen the elections. She said that while working in the House of Representatives she helped create the pathway to creating the vote-by-mail process so people could safely vote during the pandemic. Then, she worked to make it a permanent option. She would reinstate the education outreach coordinator position to help educators and young people understand current events. Additionally, she would create a voter guide so when people get their universal vote-by-mail ballots, they would also get a guide with information about the candidates.

Odum of Montpelier, who has served as city clerk for the past 10 years, essentially agreed with Winters and Paige. He said all the functions of the office were extremely important, but “we are in crisis with our elections. There is an immediate war on the democratic process,” so elections would need to take immediate priority. With a history in activism and nonprofit work and administering local elections, Odum said the Secretary of State’s office could take on additional functions as well, such as noncitizen voting, anti-racism, environmental issues, and working with the business community.

Winters of Montpelier said he has been in the Secretary of State’s office for the past 25 years, with the last seven serving as deputy secretary. “Election integrity is under attack,” he said, adding that voters’ rights are also being restricted. He said the office needs a “manager,” and not a “politician” to focus on solving problems and providing services rather than political issues. The right to vote “has to be our priority,” Winters said, because free and fair elections are what make us a democracy.

Paige of Washington said he believes the Secretary of State’s office is one of the least understood of all offices with a staff of 80 and a budget of $17 million. He said the most important functions were conducting the elections, curating results, overseeing professional regulations in a wide variety of trades, documenting and preserving government documents, and disseminating educational material. He said not one of the functions of the office is more important than another.

And responding to a subsequent question from the League of Women Voters, the candidates shed additional light on their views. The question was, “Given the misinformation around the country concerning election fraud, how would you assure Vermonters that our state elections are secure and fair?”

Copeland Hanzas said it is important for Vermonters to understand our elections are secure because there are 250 local elections administrators for “a population that is the size of the city of Boston.” Further, the local administrators process ballots, including absentee ballots and vote-by-mail ballots in the general election. Copeland Hanzas said she has been talking to those town clerks and asking what they see, what they need, and what help they need to do their job. She would also have an eye toward cyber security.

Odum said misinformation, triggering involvement of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and cyber security, has been considered the number one threat to democracy. Since the federal government considers elections to be critical infrastructure, local governments get a lot of help as far as getting reports of misinformation that is circulating. The Secretary of State’s office could serve as a hub of information by processing federal information and getting it back to local town clerks.

Winters said he agreed with Odum regarding misinformation being the biggest threat, and that the Secretary of State’s office does receive reports about the kinds of threats that are out there. Foreign interference and domestic interference are threats to election integrity, but the “greatest threat we have right now is Americans have shaken faith and they don’t trust the elections systems,” WInters said. The Secretary of State’s office must rebuild trust by educating voters and by being transparent. Most of the conspiracy theories out there are not humanly possible, Winters further asserted. Media literacy and education play a role in helping people understand the process.

Paige also emphasized the importance of gaining voter confidence amid misinformation and disinformation. But, he urged people to understand that citizens are intelligent and “have the good sense to figure out what is right and what is wrong.” He went on to describe what he felt the biggest problem with the election process is that vote-by-mail has become permanent and that lends itself to a situation where vote harvesters can go out and gather ballots to mail in, and they may or may not choose to mail in certain ballots if they know which political party the voter belongs to.