‘Bellwether’ Bethel finds 2020 primary anything but the norm

  • Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, campaigning for re-election, reads a book outside the Bethel polls on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

  • The bellwether town of Bethel has outdoor polling options because of the pandemic. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Published: 8/11/2020 9:47:17 PM
Modified: 8/11/2020 9:47:11 PM

BETHEL — Gubernatorial voting in this Windsor County bellwether community has matched Vermont results in 22 of the last 23 general elections. But ask Town Clerk Pamela Brown about primary trends during a pandemic and she says the most consistent one is change.

Two years ago, some 300 of the town’s 1,500 registered voters traveled to the local elementary school to select Republican Gov. Phil Scott and then Democratic challenger Christine Hallquist, who made national news as the first transgender candidate to be nominated for the post by a major party.

But when Bethel opened its polls Tuesday, the big headline was the fact that the town — like the state — had received more requests for absentee ballots than those cast in person in 2018.

“Most people usually come and vote,” Brown said, “but this year I think anyone who’s going to vote already has.”

The relatively few residents who did appear in person at White River Valley School were met with COVID-19 adaptations including physical distancing, wearing a mask, and using hand sanitizer. Poll workers sat behind plastic shields like those at store checkouts. Only two people at a time could vote inside, while a third could use an outdoor counter.

With only 30 residents arriving over the first two hours, Brown knit a winter cap while Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, campaigning for reelection, read a book.

“What you’re seeing is an outpouring of public support for doing this correctly,” McCormack said of the small turnout prompted by the big absentee vote. “We’re living in strange times. Large numbers of Vermonters are getting with the program.”

Residents who did show up had their reasons.

“I just think you need to be here,” said a man who said he cast a Republican ballot.

“If we lived somewhere else, I’d be more worried,” added a woman who voted Democratic.

The Vermont Secretary of State’s Office, seeing pandemic-weary residents from Brattleboro to Burlington return more than 100,000 absentee ballots, let town clerks tally mail-in votes early so officials wouldn’t be inundated with late-night work Tuesday.

Bethel spent Monday counting its 320 absentee ballots — “double plus” its previous 2016 record of 120 in the 2016 general election, Brown said — but wouldn’t report any results until polls close at 7 p.m.

The town clerk cautioned that residents shouldn’t consider the primary to be the new norm. The school may not welcome general election voting once students are back in classes. And fall absentee balloting is expected to shatter any records set this month.

“November,” Brown said, “is going to be interesting.”

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