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Donna Tosi takes a ballot from a drive-through voter at the Vernon Town Offices.

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A record primary turnout in Vermont

By mail, by car, or in person, voters flood the polls

—It was the heaviest turnout ever for a state primary, but you would have never known it by visiting polling places around Windham County on Tuesday.That’s because, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecedented number of voters chose to cast their ballots early to avoid venturing out to vote.“This is like no election we’ve ever experienced,” said Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos at a pre-election news briefing on Monday.Statewide, 153,061 people requested absentee ballots, according to Condos — an all-time record for Vermont.As of Monday afternoon, more than 110,000 of those ballots had been returned to local town clerks. That’s more than the 107,637 total in-person and absentee votes that were cast in the 2018 primary.This year’s large number of absentee ballots that were returned assured that Vermont would have a near-record primary turnout.The highest primary turnout came in 2000, the first election that followed the enactment of the civil unions law, with 122,437 votes cast in the primary.In 2016, with contested races for governor and lieutenant governor, 120,132 voted in the primary.Part of the reason for the crush of early primary voting was Condos’s decision to mail to every registered voter in Vermont a postcard to be returned to the town clerk to request an absentee ballot.Condos said his office will do a similar mailing before the Nov. 3 presidential election.Given concerns over reports of slowing mail service around Vermont, Condos has urged voters to mail in their ballots a week ahead of Tuesday’s voting.According to Vermont law, mail-in ballots must be received by Election Day. Ballots received after that date are invalid, even if they are postmarked on or before Election Day.Procrastinators had the option of delivering their absentee ballots to the polls on Tuesday.

Socially distanced voting

—Dummerston Town Clerk Laurie Frechette was busy processing absentee ballots on Tuesday morning in the basement of the Congregational Church.She said she had received 762 requests for absentee ballots, and as of Tuesday morning, 572 had been returned.Like many of the town clerks around the state, Frechette was planning to use an electronic vote tabulator, rather than a hand count, to tally the votes. Doing so would reduce the number of poll workers she would need.“I didn’t want an overabundance of people getting in each other’s way,” she said.Only two polling tables were set up, complete with bottles of sanitizer and wipes. The traditional polling booths were packed away.Guilford took a similar approach in setting up its polling station at the Broad Brook Community Center, with only two voting booths.Town Clerk Penny Marine said she and two other people made up her polling staff for this election, and that no more would be needed thanks to the wave of early voting.Marine said that her office received approximately 700 requests for absentee ballots out of 1,729 voters in town, and that 475 had come back as of noon on Tuesday. She was also going to rely on her tabulating machine for the final count. Generally, she said, poll workers do a hand count, but “this seemed like a good time to use it,” she said.

Motor voting

—Putney and Vernon dispensed with indoor voting and opted for the drive-through approach.Putney Town Clerk Jonathan Johnson said the town used drive-through voting for the recent Windham Southeast School District budget vote, and “it worked well enough that I was willing to try it again for the primary.”Johnson said he received 810 requests for absentee ballots and 604 had been returned as of Tuesday morning.“We had more absentee votes this year than we had in total votes in the 2018 primary,” he said.Since Vernon is not a member of Windham Southeast, that town didn’t have that same dry run for drive-through voting, so Town Clerk Tim Arsenault had to plan Tuesday’s voting from scratch.He and his staff had spent months figuring out how to have an election in a pandemic. Vernon received 455 requests for absentee ballots, and 335 were returned as of Tuesday morning.“I’m thrilled,” said Arsenault about the level of participation. “This is far beyond what we would normally see for a primary.”He said he was happy with how drive-through voting was working. “I think it’s the best way to vote in person and still maintain social distancing,” he said.

Following the process

—With no requirement to register with a political party, Vermont’s voters choose which of the three party primaries to participate in. They do so whether they go to the polls or vote at home.Voters mark up one party’s ballot and turn that in along with the two blank ballots when they cast their vote.Early voters had to put the two unused ballots into a separate envelope and the filled-out ballot into another, signed envelope. Failure to do so would require the ballot to be rejected as defective.Condos said that the goals for this election were to preserve the voting rights of all Vermonters and to ensure the safety of voters and poll workers at polling places. Condos said he hoped that so many people choosing to vote by mail would lighten the workload for town clerks and poll workers.This year, town clerks were able to get a head start in processing the early ballots. Condos said his office expanded the period during which they could process those ballots, from the day before the election to 30 days prior.Even with the head start, Condos said his office was stressing to town clerks that accuracy should overrule speed when it comes to reporting results. The secretary of state also urged voters to remain patient as the results are tabulated.“We need to get away from the notion that results are official the moment the polls close on election night,” he said Monday. “It’s just not how the process works.”Condos said people “must be ready for the reality that accurately counting the election with integrity this year means it may take longer than in years past. It is vitally important that we do take our time and get it right. Accuracy leads to better integrity.”As per state law, election results are not official until one week after an election, when a statewide canvass of votes takes place.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #574 (Wednesday, August 12, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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