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Guilford Town Clerk Penny Marine, seen here giving instructions to a voter during the Aug. 11 state primary, said nearly 1,000 Guilford voters opted to vote early for the Nov. 3 election.

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No comparison

Town clerks around Windham County reported high numbers of absentee ballots prior to election — on top of their other year-round duties

Between organizing the polls, working with volunteers, and tabulating votes, elections are always a busy time for town clerks.

To say this year is even busier is probably an understatement.

For the 2020 presidential election, the Vermont Secretary of State’s office mailed ballots to all registered voters. From there, voters could return them via the U.S. Postal Service, drop them at their town offices, or wait until Nov. 3 to vote in person.

Many of Windham County’s town clerks, and everyone working in their offices, have run a voting marathon this election season, including Tuesday’s contest, the primary before it, and the pandemic lording over all.

Just last week, town clerks kept moving, quickly organizing early ballots and updating their voter rolls, while also performing their other, year-round duties such as filling requests for deeds and land records.

Dover Town Clerk Andy McLean summed up the situation succinctly.

“So, the office is crazy,” he said. “We have an insane amount of absentee ballots.”

Or, put another way, from Londonderry Town Clerk Kelly Pajala, “This [election] is a completely different set of circumstances.”

“And I’m just glad that people are able to cast their ballots in whatever way feels safest and most secure to them,” she added.

At the national level, the news has offered many reasons for people to stay away from voting — or, worse, be prevented from doing so.

Last month, the Pew Research Center posted an article looking at the level of anxiety voters had about the November election. The study found voters were worried about difficulty in casting ballots, worried about the pandemic, worried about Russian interference in the process, and worried about President Donald Trump’s multiple statements about not relinquishing power should he lose the election.

In August, Pew researchers found that only half of registered voters believed it would be easy to vote in November — a difference of 35 percentage points from the results of the same question asked during 2018 midterm elections.

But the Vermont Secretary of State’s office — the state agency in charge of overseeing elections — has attempted to make voting easier in recent months. Secretary of State Jim Condos has often said that preventing people from voting is “true voter fraud.”

Changes made to the 2020 presidential election process included mailing each active registered voter a ballot by Oct. 1, paying for return postage, performing outreach to ensure voters would know the voting options, enabling curbside and outdoor voting, and allowing clerks to securely and confidently process ballots starting 30 days prior to Election Day to avoid any last-minute influx of ballots.

Condos reported Tuesday that, as of Nov. 2, 260,142 Vermonters had already cast their ballots, shattering the previous record of 95,203 early votes received during the 2016 presidential election.

The largest turnout in a presidential election came in 2008, when about 326,000 cast their ballots, or a turnout rate of 72 percent. Condos said he expected that record to be shattered, too.

Townshend: ‘Definitely a lot’ of ballots — and a mystery

As of last week, Townshend Town Clerk Anita Bean had received more than double the number of early ballots compared to the 2016 presidential election.

Bean and members of the town staff were busy preparing the Town Hall for in-person voting. A member of the Highway Department had created a plastic barrier down the center of the main hallway to separate voters entering the site from those exiting the polls, Bean said.

Bean also planned to separate poll workers during ballot counting after the polls closed at 7 p.m. on Nov. 3. Some would work downstairs and others upstairs, she said. Local high-school-aged students had volunteered to act as runners between the two areas.

A few of her regular older poll workers have opted out of staffing elections during the pandemic, she said. In general, however, she’s easily found volunteers.

Compounding the workload, requests for land records have also increased since April.

“Oh, my goodness,” Bean said.

In a typical year, Bean said her office processes between 15 and 20 land records requests. Since April, the office has dealt with 50 requests.

Leading up to Tuesday, Bean said the secretary of state’s decision to mail the early ballots has worked well — except for one odd hitch.

“Some Townshend voters received Halifax ballots [in the mail],” Bean said. “I still don’t understand it because they’re not even close in the alphabet.”

Bean said she never would have realized the confusion except that a resident at Valley Cares, an assisted- and independent-living facility, contacted her wondering if they could still vote.

To Bean’s knowledge, most of the voters who received the wrong ballots have received replacement ballots. If someone did mail in a Halifax ballot, Bean said it will still be counted.

According to Bean, no one at the secretary of state’s office could explain the mixup. She said the elections staff assured her that Townshend voters could legally use the Halifax ballots, which were mostly the same except for a few local races.

Dover: Busy with elections and real estate transfers

Dover’s town clerk, Andy McLean, paused his interview to answer questions from the public.

“We’re getting [ballots] in the mail and in our drop box,” he said. “Every day we collect ballots, and we enter them in the statewide database as having been received.”

While processing ballots, McLean has noticed “one interesting and wonderful thing.”

During the August primary, approximately 10 percent of Dover’s early ballots were “defective,” meaning they weren’t filled out correctly, McLean said. Mostly people forgot to sign the their certificate envelopes, he said.

He attributes this high number to people unaccustomed to early voting. Since then, however, the outreach from the Secretary of State’s Office and town clerks has paid off. Of the more than 500 early ballots McLean’s office had received as of last week, only two were defective.

Requests for land records have also kept McLean’s office hopping.

Dover, home to the Mount Snow ski area, has a large second-home community and an often-busy housing market. Since the start of the pandemic, however, the number of requests is higher than usual, according to McLean.

“So, while the office is incredibly busy with absentee ballots right now, and preparing for the election, it’s also busier than I’ve probably ever seen it, real-estate-recording-wise,” he said. “We’re getting hit from both ends and — can you hold on one second?

“What can I do for you?” he asked a member of the public, who then asked a question in the background.

With the number of new residents moving into town, McLean has been busy updating the town’s voter roll and notifying the resident’s previous town, if they were registered to vote somewhere else.

McLean feels confident in Vermont’s electoral system, believing that it is decentralized enough that it would be hard for someone with nefarious intent to change an election’s outcome.

“I’m hoping it will be slow on Election Day,” he said —an odd hope from a town clerk.

Catching himself, McLean laughed and added, “That’s just the exhaustion talking. My better angels are hoping that we have a great turnout and that we see 100 percent turnout in Dover.”

Londonderry: A town clerk must step away for Election Day

As of last week, Londonderry had received more than 600 early ballots, Town Clerk Kelly Pajala said as she looked at the pile of absentee ballots on her desk.

“I fully expect we’ll have over 50 percent of our voting happening early,” she said.

By comparison, she said, her office received 250 early ballots in the 2016 election.

The number of new voters in town has also caught Pajala’s attention. She described them as a mix of people new to town as well as people who have never voted before.

So people are asking a lot about the voting process, wondering how ballots will be counted, and checking with the her office before submitting their ballots to make sure they filled them out correctly.

The engagement is encouraging, she said.

A trend that Pajala hopes will continue is the large number of people who want to volunteer as poll workers.

“We’ve actually had more calls for volunteers than we [have spots],” she said.

On Election Day, Pajala won’t preside over the polls or count ballots like other clerks. As a candidate for the Vermont House of Representatives, she must recuse herself. Pajala said she would stay away from the polls while the assistant town clerks oversee the election and ballot counting.

Brattleboro: ‘Fast and furious and steady’

In Brattleboro, Town Clerk Hilary Francis paused to check the number of early ballots.

“Voting has been fast and furious and steady,” she said last week. “As of last night, we had 4,800 ballots returned, and most of those have already been put into the tabulator.”

That early vote translates to approximately 46 percent of the town’s 9,924 registered voters. Francis estimated another 1,000 to 1,500 voters will cast their ballots in person.

Safety at the polls has been a priority, Francis said. A team of volunteers will devote their time to cleaning and sanitizing each booth after every voter uses it. A greeter will meet voters at the entrance to ensure they are wearing masks and to dispense hand sanitizer, she said.

Instead of supplying pens in the booths, volunteers will give each voter a pencil to mark the ballot. The pencils are stamped with a message — “Town of Brattleboro/Thank you for voting!” — Francis said.

The pencils will serve as a keepsake in place of the traditional “I voted” stickers.

And yes, the number of land records requests has also increased, she said.

“Everybody’s trying to stay healthy and safe and make sure that their democracy works and that their voices are counted,” she said. “And we as the election team are really trying to do that, too. And I hope that people can be kind to each other on the day of and afterwards as well.”

Guilford: Mailed ballots have boosted turnout

Guilford’s Town Clerk Penny Marine said of the 1,745 people on the town’s voter checklist, 960 people had voted early as of last week.

In her opinion, each voter receiving ballots in the mail has helped increase turnout.

When the ballot is in a voter’s hand, then the choice becomes simple — to vote or not to vote — whereas, when people need to get to the polls, so much of life can get in their way, she said.

Marine and an assistant staffed the polls on Election Day. She decided against using volunteers. Many of the members of the Board of Civil Authority are older and more vulnerable to the coronavirus, she said.

Between checking off absentee ballots and preparing for Election Day, Marine was also trying to keep up with recording changes to the town’s land records.

“I got caught up two weeks ago,” she said. “And now I’ve got another whole stack. We’ve had a lot of sales in Guilford.”

Westminster: Too busy

In case the point wasn’t clear enough as to how busy town clerks were prior to Nov. 3, a conversation with Westminster’s Assistant Town Clerk Patty Mark drove it home.

The Secretary of State’s Office sent out 2,400 early ballots for the town, she said. As of last week, 1,130 have been returned.

And understandably, that was about all the time Mark could spare for a newspaper interview.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #586 (Wednesday, November 4, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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