Absentee Ballots Coming in to Town Clerks

by Doug McClure

NORTHEAST KINGDOM – Town Clerks in Gazette-coverage towns described a mostly smooth rollout of absentee ballots for the November 3 General Election. While all reported an increase in absentee votes, the amount of increase varied from town-to-town. In every instance, none reported any issue with voting, outside of issues with incorrect addresses. Due to COVID-19, voters are encouraged to vote early using mail-in ballots for safety.

Hardwick Assistant Town Clerk Tonia Gray said that, as of Monday night, 633 ballots had been returned to the town clerk. According to official results from the Secretary of State, Hardwick residents cast 1,410 votes in the 2016 General Election.

Gray said that the one issue the town has experienced is “a hundred to a hundred-fifty” ballots with the incorrect address. The state relies on people self-reporting an address change to update its records, she said, and people don’t always do that. Vermont has a detailed “voter challenge” process that town clerks must follow if someone moves to another town and does not update their addresses with the state.

The Town of Wolcott has seen 393 ballots returned out of 1,107 sent, according to Assistant Town Clerk Allison Bigelow. She said “There’s really no way to compare previous numbers.” No prior year relied as heavily on absentee ballots. According to the Secretary of State, 810 people voted in the Wolcott 2016 election. Bigelow said “We have had no issues and we answer any and all questions when voters call to ask. There was an instruction notice with the outgoing ballots and it appears that people have been following those.”

In Woodbury, Town Clerk Diana Peduzzi said that for the last presidential election in 2016, the town had 58 absentee ballots. This year, she said 200 of the 699 ballots sent out by the state had been returned thus far. Peduzzi said she sent an additional 20 ballots to residents too new to be included in the state’s original mailing, and with the number sent out and the proximity of election day, “I’m a little worried that we’ll be slammed with ballot returns in the next two weeks.” She said that while she understands those residents who would rather go to the polls in person, the pandemic meant a new system was needed to supersede the old ways for the sake of safety.

“I’ve heard a number of comments ‘I like to go to vote at the polls,’ well, so [would] I, but this whole system was set up because of the pandemic and so that our election workers won’t have to have as much contact with the public. Despite all of the safety measures we’ll have in place, it’s still safer to stay home!” Despite a small number of “addresses [that] were not quite right” that she tracked down, the only problems she had experienced thus far were typical ones, such as when residents moved away and did not update the state with that information.

Calais had not yet seen a large increase over 2016’s absentee numbers, according to Town Clerk Judy Robert, with 582 thus far compared to a 2016 total of 431. She described the process so far as business as usual for an election. “The process is going smoothly, with some voters calling for directions as to how to return ballots or to update their address.” She directed voters with questions to calaisvermont.gov or to contact her at calais.townclerk@gmail.com.

With about a third of Cabot’s 1,000 registered voters already having voted, Town Clerk Betty Ritter said that comparisons to previous votes were not necessarily meaningful because “all registered voters received a ballot and have the choice of mailing it in prior to November 3 or bringing their ballot in and voting on the day of the election.” Ritter said with election day this close, she recommended people drop their ballots off with the town clerk’s office instead of mailing them, “or they can put it in our drop box, which is located to the right of the back door.” She said that drop box is checked frequently, including on weekends. Ritter said for those who want to vote in person, “The voting will be taking place at the Willey Building, located at 3084 Main Street, and we are taking all necessary precautions to keep each voter safe. We will be taking everyone’s temperature along with entering through one door and exiting out another door. If anyone has any questions, please contact the town clerk’s office at 563-2279.”

What remains to be seen once the election in the books is how the widest use of mail-in ballots in Vermont history impacted the turnout. During the 1918 pandemic, no similar option was available. The Gazette’s November 7, 1918 issue noted that “Hardly a third of the town of Hardwick turned out on Tuesday. Other towns where no local contest was on, the same condition was faced.” While that article does not specifically mention the pandemic, just two columns over is a reprinted column from the New York Herald entitled “Grip’s Strange Choice” which noted, “A characteristic of the present influenza epidemic is that its victims are chosen so largely from among the healthiest and strongest part of the population – people of 15 to 40.” Schools in Hardwick were still closed during the week of elections due to the pandemic, “partly because a greater margin of safety will result from the delay.”