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Upping the vote

Citizens take first steps to increase Brattleboro’s voter turnout

BRATTLEBORO—Traditionally, voter turnout in Brattleboro hovers between 16 and 27 percent of registered voters.

A group of interested citizens hopes to raise that percentage.

The goals of the Double the Number of Voters Initiative entail increasing twofold the number of Brattleboro voters showing up at the polls by March 6, 2012 and eliminating the barriers between people and the ballot box.

More than 20 community members turned out April 12 for the initiative’s inaugural meeting hosted by freshman Selectboard member Kenneth Schneck, the initiative’s mastermind.

Participants discussed the barriers to voting, what the group didn’t know (and needed to learn more about), and determined action items.

Schneck also included in the discussion e-mail messages sent to him by residents unable to attend the meeting.

Looking at the numbers

Annette Cappy, who has served Brattleboro as town clerk for 22 years, said after the meeting that voter turnout rates for the annual election of town officers on Town Meeting Day have remained consistently low.

By comparison, in presidential election years, the turnout jumps to 46 to 48 percent, Cappy said.

“When there are real issues and candidates people are invested in, they come out [to the polls],” she said.

But the fact that presidential elections do draw out a higher percentage shows Brattleboro’s turnout has the potential to rise above the twenty-something-percent norm.

Kathleen Scheele works in the Campaigns and Elections Division of the Vermont Secretary of State’s office. Her department that runs the statewide election numbers, and she said that Brattleboro’s turnout numbers are on par with other Vermont towns.

According to the elections division, the ratio of voter turnout statewide to the number of eligible voters in Vermont was 66.7 percent in the 2008 general election.

The elections division, which publishes general election statistics and results beginning with 1974, records the election with the lowest turnout as 1978, with 44.4 percent. The highest turnout, 1992, was 69.8 percent.

When they want to vote, Vermonters can choose between going to the polls, early voting via absentee ballots, or voting by phone for people with disabilities.

In an attempt to increase turnout, former Secretary of State Deb Markowitz advanced changes to the voting law that resulted in increased convenience of early voting, said Scheele.

The easier early voting laws went into effect in time for the 2002 general election.

And early voting has increased.

Absentee ballot use has escalated from 35,417 in 2002 to 94,664 in the 2008 general election. The 2010 statewide general election saw 50,474 early ballots.

But despite the increase in early voting, overall turnout remains stagnant. Scheele attributes this to Vermont’s “non-diverse” population and a lack of citizen-led initiatives.

In general, she said, other states with more diverse populations and the ability to put initiatives on their ballots, such as California, have more special interest groups pushing those initiatives.

Scheele responded to the suggestion that the committee offer a “big prize” for people showing up to vote.

“Yeah. No. Bad idea,” she said. ”There’s a [Vermont] constitutional prohibition [against] that.”

Barriers?

At the April 12 meeting, participants identified 22 barriers thwarting people’s ability to vote.

Some of the barrier were logistical, such as lack of transportation.

The audience suggested solutions such as finding volunteer drivers to bring people to the polls or allowing people to register to vote at the same time as they apply for a driver’s license.

Cappy answered most of the suggestions by pointing out existing programs like a shuttle program to drive people from their homes to the Brattleboro Union High School, where the town holds elections.

Byron Stookey suggested that voting would increase if the polls opened two hours earlier, at 7 a.m., because more workers employed at 9-to-5 jobs could get to the high school. He said that while standing outside BUHS during elections, he identified those voting as mostly who are retired, self-employed, or otherwise not working traditional office hours.

Cappy said that BUHS does not allow the poll workers in early enough to allow for a 7 a.m. start, noting that school officials have told her that doing so would disrupt school. Further conversation revealed that the request to not disrupt school came from the athletics department.

Many area towns do not open the polls until 10 a.m., although some towns open their polling stations at 8 or 9 a.m.

Contacted after the meeting, Scheele said she didn’t favor a 7 a.m. polling start because Vermont provides an absentee voting window of 45 days. Because of the ease of early voting, she would prefer polls open statewide at 10 a.m. This later start time would mean better count numbers, because the poll workers would feel less fatigued, she said.

Combating apathy

More of the stumbling blocks the group identified, however, focused on a culture of “apathy” towards voting.

District 3 Town Meeting representative Spoon Agave said he believed a large number of voters feel their ballots don’t count. No matter who they elect, nothing ever changes, he said.

Agave also serves on the Charter Review Commission, and has served on the Brattleboro Selectboard.

“People think one candidate is just like the other candidate,” said Cappy.

Tessa Anders, a social studies teacher at BUHS, said many of her students did follow politics but felt a “lack of connection.” Her students couldn’t see how what they cared about in their daily lives connected to the big picture of democracy or local, state, and federal decision-making processes.

Charter Review Commission Chair Larry Bloch said he felt that part of the apathy stemmed from a lack of civics education in schools.

He also made a push for a charter change he wants to propose at a later date to lower the age required to vote in local elections to 16.

Bloch added that most 18-year-olds are in a state of transition “and ready to leave the area,” making it harder for them to vote.

Kurt Daims said that people understand that they need to honor the rights that veterans have fought for. People don’t understand the responsibilities of citizenship, such as jury duty and voting, he said.

Bloch said in some countries, voting is compulsory and allows for a “protest vote” like a “none of the above” option.

“It redefines apathy,” said Daims.

Schneck said the lack of voting wasn’t just down to high school students.

District 1 Town Meeting representative Peter Cooper said some people “vote out of a tradition or habit.”

But what if someone hasn’t built the ballot habit?

Schneck said it’s important to “dispel misinformation” about the voter registration process, like the falsehood that registering to vote also means a person is automatically drafted in the army or put in the pool for jury duty.

The audience also discussed shifting the topic of voting into community discussions year-round, so voting could remain in people’s minds beyond election season.

“I’m in no way swayed by these barriers,” said Schneck referring to the list compiled by the audience.

Schneck said he felt encouraged by the group of people committed to increasing voting who took the time to show up “on a random Tuesday night.”

Going forward, Schneck is developing a survey to gather information about why people do or don’t vote in Brattleboro to help the group gather more information and statistics.

The next meeting will take place May 10 at 6 p.m. in the Selectboard Meeting Room on the second floor of the Municipal Center. The committee plans to meet once a month. Contact Schneck at kschneck@marlboro.edu for more information.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #97 (Wednesday, April 20, 2011).

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