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Pandemic polling gets vote of confidence during Vermont primary

  • After passing along a ballot, Justice of the Peace Linda Gray directs Ted Austin, of Norwich, Vt., to a parking place to vote at the town's transfer station on Aug. 11, 2020. Amongst the recycling and trash bins, Norwich residents cast votes from their cars with minimal waiting. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Todd Bayer, of Royalton, Vt., votes at a booth partially blocked due to the pandemic in the White River Valley Elementary School gym in South Royalton, Vt., on Aug. 11, 2020. Bayer said he came to the polls to vote after his absentee ballot didn't arrive in the mail. It didn't bother him to vote in person. "It's pretty quiet," he said. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A passing rain shower falls on Norwich Police Cadet Evan Burke's face shield while waiting to direct the next voter in their car at the polls set up at the transfer station in Norwich, Vt., on August 11, 2020. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • As workers Ann Raynolds, left, and Ona Chase sort absentee ballots, Pomfret Town Clerk Becky Fielder, center, speaks with Carol Lamson as Lamson starts her shift at the polls in the Town Clerk's building in Pomfret, Vt., on Aug. 11, 2020. Fielder said the number of voting booths had to be reduced for social distancing during the pandemic. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Patty Monahan, of Norwich, Vt., returns a golf pencil along with her ballot to Justice of the Peace Suzanne Leiter after Monahan snapped a picture to share with family on social media at the Norwich transfer station on August 11, 2020. "I wasn't going to let a pandemic get in the way of voting in person," said Monahan, who has been working remotely for Mascoma Bank. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/11/2020 9:55:52 PM
Modified: 8/11/2020 9:55:46 PM

NORWICH — As she stopped by the ballot box to submit her votes, Patty Monahan held up her phone and took a picture of the scene.

She had good reason. Aiming her phone out the car window, she took in the ballot box and the tent shading it and poll workers Suzanne Leiter and Mary Magavern. Was the photo taken with social media in mind?

“Oh, God, yes,” Monahan said. “I’m going to send it to my kids, because they were like, ‘Mom, are you really going to vote at the dump?’ ”

Yes, kids, your Norwich moms and other relations did vote at the dump on Tuesday. They drove up to get ballots where they usually toss out their trash (a location chosen for its shade and not for its irony); they parked next to the containers for recycled cardboard, e-waste and metal and leaned clipboards against steering wheels to mark their choices; then pulled up to the ballot box just past the waste motor oil shed and handed their instruments of democracy through their car windows.

As with so many other things, the novel coronavirus pandemic has turned voting into an obstacle course. Thanks mainly to the hard work of town clerks and partly to the number of people who voted early by mail, balloting in Tuesday’s Vermont primary appeared to go smoothly, with relatively few voters or lines and plenty of masks, hand sanitizer and physical distancing.

In Royalton, only 31 voters had come in to cast ballots by 11 a.m., and another 12 had dropped off mail-in ballots. Nearly 300 ballots had come in before Tuesday, said Karmen Bascom, the town clerk.

While in-person voting took place in the smaller of the two gyms at White River Valley School District’s Royalton campus as it always does, there were five tables (a few more than usual) and two voting booths (one fewer than usual) set up far apart. Bascom created a drive-thru lane outside as well, and the gym doors were open wide with fans blowing in fresh air.

To Bascom, the primary seemed like good warm-up for November’s general election. “This is just a good time to practice, because we don’t really know what’s going to happen,” she said.

Bascom had 20 to 25 people who regularly volunteer at the polls opt out this time around, but still had enough volunteers to keep the polls open.

Pomfret Town Clerk Becky Fielder had planned to have voters check in outside her town’s small office, but the heat pushed that station back indoors. A little more than 300 of Pomfret’s 791 registered voters requested early ballots, and as of noon Tuesday just over 250 had been returned, Fielder said.

Only a single voting booth was set up inside the office, but that was more than sufficient for the 60 voters who turned out before noon. “We’re not going to have any lines,” Fielder said.

Fielder didn’t have trouble finding volunteers, but counting the ballots was another matter. “I think this is harder than November,” she said, noting that there were three primary ballots that had to be separated and counted by hand, since Pomfret doesn’t have a vote tabulator. They’re required only for towns with more than 1,000 voters, she said. The office was too small a space to accommodate all the people needed to count, so they’d have to lug the ballots across the road to the Town Hall.

Pomfret resident Dana Wright said she decided to vote in person “because it’s a tiny town and we’re right nearby.” In “bigger cities and bigger areas, it would make no sense,” she added.

Whether Norwich is a bigger area is hard to say. Monahan said she “wasn’t going to let a pandemic stand in my way of voting in person. Everyone’s working so hard to make this happen, why vote by mail?”

When they weren’t assisting voters or volunteers, Town Clerk Bonnie Munday and her assistant, Judy Trussell, sat in the shade of the building where Norwich residents pay for their trash disposal. Trussell, in particular, estimated that she has been working 60-hour weeks to prepare for the primary. It was Trussell’s idea to use the transfer station.

“I worked up here for 18 years,” she said. “When they said, ‘Do outside voting,’ I said, ‘Let’s take it to the transfer station.’ ”

It already has loops for people to drive around, shade for the poll workers and is away from Main Street so it wouldn’t cause traffic backups. After Vermont allowed drive-thru voting, but didn’t require it Munday and Trussell talked it over and decided to do it, and the town’s board of civil authority backed them up, the two women said.

The main challenge for Norwich was the addition of another ballot, a revote of a bond issue for energy upgrades to Tracy Hall decided at Town Meeting. “We sent out about 2,800 ballots” in response to 1,400 requests from voters, Munday said.

Voting on Tuesday was still steady. “We’ve definitely gotten a few more than expected,” Trussell said.

Among them was Jessica Barloga, who said voting from her car was “definitely different. But I will say, it was incredibly easy and fluid.” It gives her confidence that November’s vote will go smoothly, she said.

Selectboard member John Langhus drove through in the early afternoon. “We’re lucky to have this loop in our town that’s a little bit out of the way,” he said. He, too, said he felt more confident about November’s general election, at least in Norwich.

Not long after Langhus had driven away, a stray shower passed through, and Munday and Trussell stood out in the rain to cool off. They would have to hand-count the town ballots after the polls closed, work that would take place in the cool of Tracy Hall’s air-conditioned multipurpose room.

“I think we’re all looking forward to that,” Trussell said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.

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