Counting slowed by record turnout
March 13, 3008
By Greg Elias
Voting machine problems and a huge turnout overwhelmed ballot counters at Champlain Valley Union High School last week, delaying the final tally until the next day.
Balloting on the high school's budget as well as funding for school buses and capital projects took place March 4. Each measure passed easily.
But the counts weren't completed until about 2 p.m. the following day, 19 hours after the polls closed and long after other results were released. Officials attributed the delay to voting machine malfunctions, a shortage of help and the large number of ballots.
"Since we had fewer people, one less voting machine and double the number of ballots, it was kind of a nightmare," said Terry Macaig, a Williston Selectboard member and one of several people who helped with the count.
Votes for the high school's budget are cast in Williston, Charlotte, Hinesburg and Shelburne, the towns that fund the school. But unlike balloting for elected offices and town budgets, votes are not tallied where they are cast. Instead, ballots are transported to the high school, where they are commingled and counted.
Ordinarily, the process is completed within three or four hours. But this was far from an ordinary election.
Turnout, driven by widespread interest in the hotly contested Democratic primary race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, was roughly twice that of a typical March election.
Statewide, 46.6 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the primary, a record. Individual towns reported similar percentages. In the CVU budget vote, there were 9,492 ballots cast.
So volunteers faced a daunting task after all the ballots arrived at CVU at about 8 p.m. The job was made tougher by voting machine malfunctions.
The machines need a pre-programmed card to work. But one machine had no card, said Joan Lenes, who as clerk of the high school district supervised the vote. She said she did not know why the card was missing.
Williston Town Clerk Deb Beckett said vote-counting machines are supposed to be tested well ahead of the election, though it is unclear who is responsible for the tests. Such a test would have revealed the card was missing.
Williston and Shelburne each sent a voting machine to CVU, Beckett said. But she noted that clerks do not deal with the machines' cards, nor do they test the machines.
Lenes did not know why the machines were not tested.
There were also fewer people to count votes than normal. Each town usually provides volunteers who take turns feeding ballots into the machines. But Lenes said this year Charlotte did not send help.
"I think it's the responsibility of every town to be represented when we are commingling the ballots of every town," Lenes said.
Charlotte Town Clerk Mary Mead said in the past there were plenty of people to count ballots. When Charlotte sent volunteers in previous years, they were not allowed to participate because they were not members of the town's Board of Civil Authority.
Mead said her poll workers were exhausted after counting Charlotte's 1,668 ballots by hand. She did not want to waste their time by having then stand around at CVU.
"I'm so sick and tired of this," she said. "They told us we couldn't send anyone but members of the Board of Civil Authority. They are consistently rude to us."
Lenes said she was unaware of the hard feelings.
"If someone feels they were treated rudely, they need to say so," she said.
But Lenes also insisted that Vermont law permits only Board of Civil Authority members to count votes.
The statute is unclear on the issue, said Kathy DeWolfe, director of elections for the Vermont Secretary of State. A section governing union school budget votes requires counters to be members of the board, she said, but another section controlling general voting procedures is less stringent about who participates.
In any case, election workers at CVU continued to feed ballots into the vote-counting machines until about 2,000 remained, Lenes said. Then one of the two functioning machines stopped working. After consulting with Shelburne's town clerk, Lenes decided shortly after midnight to finish the next day.
"We were very concerned about the weather and people getting home safely," she said.
The count resumed at about 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday. It was finished at 2 p.m.
It was not the first time there was a problem with the CVU vote. In 2001, Charlotte decided to cancel its vote when a snowstorm made travel treacherous. But the other towns did vote, and the situation created a controversy about whether everyone would have to vote again. Charlotte residents ended up voting the following week, and those ballots were added to the other towns' previous tallies.
Beckett said it is important to obtain timely results. There are deadlines for people to demand recounts, and candidates are supposed to take office immediately.
But DeWolfe said those are non-issues because residents have 10 days to ask for a recount and incumbents continue to serve until a new person is elected. What is important, she said, is that the count is correct.
"I think what matters is accurate results," DeWolfe said. "So if someone felt they were unable to complete the vote count that night and all the ballots were locked away before they left, then it was better to wait."
Here are the tallies for the CVU votes:
$20.7 million budget
Yes: 6,373 No: 3,119
School bus funding
Yes: 6,357 No: 3,120
Capital project funding
Yes: 6,302 No: 3,166