Vermont election clerks say they’re ready for the ballot count, high-tech or old-school

  • Brattleboro Town Clerk Hilary Francis slides early ballots into a tabulating machine. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Published: 11/2/2020 9:13:21 PM
Modified: 11/2/2020 9:13:15 PM

BRATTLEBORO — Town Clerk Hilary Francis remembers when no one knew she worked for the only Vermont locality whose charter lets residents deposit early votes into a tabulating machine for safekeeping until Election Day.

Then the state government — which was mailing nearly a half-million ballots this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — rolled out several measures to help other municipalities follow Brattleboro’s lead.

“Because of the national news, there are more concerned calls,” says Francis, who’s fielding questions from peers, politicos and the public about whether the election count will be safe and sound. “I even have my mother in New York and sister-in-law in Connecticut asking, ‘Should I vote absentee or in person?’ I can’t talk to you about other states, but I feel very fortunate to be doing my job in Vermont.”

That sentiment is echoed by Francis’ colleagues in the state’s 246 cities and towns as they prepare to tally a possible record number of votes Tuesday.

For clerks, a long night of hand-counting used to be as traditional as a Norman Rockwell painting. Then came 2006, when too many communities without tabulating machines recorded incorrect totals in the race for Vermont auditor — leading to a seeming 137-vote win for incumbent Randy Brock and, after an $80,000 statewide recount, an actual 102-ballot victory for his challenger, Thomas M. Salmon.

It was the first time in Vermont history that a recount overturned the outcome of a statewide election. As a result, municipalities with 1,000 or more voters — about 80% of all cities and towns — now are required to use electronic counters, raising the number of localities with them from 73 in 2006 to more than 150 today.

Although such technology saves time after the polls close, it can add to it beforehand. To ensure security, Francis must test specially programmed memory cards in advance, then lock everything up and look to see that neither hardware nor software is unduly disturbed.

“You coddle the machine to make sure it doesn’t get bumped or bruised,” she says.

For her efforts, the town clerk can report unofficial results as quickly as a half-hour after receiving the last ballot.

“It’s not without its hiccups, but if there’s an issue, we have backup machines and memory cards,” she says. “There’s always a fix.”

Not everyone is sold. Nearly 100 smaller Green Mountain towns, representing 20% of the electorate, still count by hand. Take Townshend, some 20 miles north of Brattleboro. Even though talliers say a projected 80% turnout of almost 1,000 voters will keep them busy for at least three hours, they don’t mind.

“It’s going to be a long day, but this feels like Vermont,” Townshend Town Clerk Anita Bean says. “Tabulators make me feel like I’m in a city.”

Nationally, Vermont is one of 42 states allowing early ballots to be processed (although not counted) in advance. That’s sparking questions, especially among Republicans. Windham County GOP Chair Rick Morton recently interrogated the Brattleboro town clerk for an hour and a half before publishing a local newspaper commentary titled “The Importance of Vote Integrity.” Its conclusion surprised many.

“I am greatly confident about local ballot security,” Morton wrote. “So let us all calm down about that at least.”

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