Elections in the Queen City have been plagued by several glitches of late, but city officials are hoping for smoother sailing this Town Meeting Day.
In October, the clerk/treasurer’s office, which is charged with overseeing the city’s elections, temporarily stopped early voting after accidentally leaving five of 15 Republican candidates for justice of the peace off the ballot. The office had to reprint ballots — a $10,000 mistake. Then, roughly two weeks before the election, the office discovered that 87 voters in a New North End housing development had been listed in the wrong district. In 2012, the office misprinted a tax rate on ballots. There have been other snafus, too.
The upcoming election on March 3 is a big one — due to redistricting, all city councilors, school commissioners and the mayor's office are up for reelection.
After the ballot misprints, Mayor Miro Weinberger said, "These avoidable and costly errors must end,” and asked his chief administrative officer, Bob Rusten, to draft a plan to make that happen.
Rusten presented it to the city council on Tuesday.
For the most part, the plan reads like a manual on common sense. The solution for misprinted ballots: proofreading. The clerk/treasurer’s office already had multiple people reviewing the ballots before they were printed, according to Rusten. Now they’ve got even more, and they will also send the ballots to political parties for review — Republicans caught the mistake with the justices of the peace.
The fix for placing people in the wrong voting districts: The office will conduct a computerized audit one month ahead of time make sure people have been assigned to the proper districts and wards.
The report also noted that the clerk/treasurer’s office has failed to submit voting results to the Vermont Secretary of State’s office on time but said they’ve worked out an agreement with state officials that will make meeting the legal requirements easier.
Rusten defended the clerk/treasurer's office's efforts, noting, "We believe most of the elections have functioned in a smooth and efficient way, recognizing the complexity of election processes here." Likewise, the mayor said in a statement provided Tuesday that the "smooth functioning of local democracy generally is very healthy in Burlington, thanks in large part to our committed election staff and volunteers."
Calling Burlington's election system "too complex to be completely error-free," Weinberger added, "I appreciate CAO Rusten’s timely efforts and am satisfied with how the report addresses past and potential issues, and believe it positions the city to do better in future elections.”
The clerk/treasurer's office will be implementing the report's recommendations without Scott Schrader, who as an assistant chief administrative officer was the point person for administering elections. Schrader resigned recently, citing family and personal reasons, according to Rusten. The chief administrative officer will fill his shoes for now, along with assistant city attorney Gene Bergman.
Some councilors and candidates said they were satisfied with the report, but several expressed lingering concerns. Republicans Kurt Wright and Michael Ly were both running for state rep in the district where 87 voters were listed on the rolls incorrectly. They found out about the mishap through a chance run-in with one of those voters. Ly, who lost by less than 50 votes and is now running for city councilor, said his race was potentially impacted by the screwup. Given that it was the Democratic Party that notified the clerk/treasurer's office of the mistake, they argued that the city should have informed them directly. "When you don’t inform candidates it ... at least it gives the appearance of playing favorites with one party," Wright said.
They also still worried about a potential for conflicts of interest at the polls, a concern that independent councilor Sharon Bushor also expressed. The problem: Nothing prevents the ward clerks who help run elections from being affiliated with the candidates. Rusten acknowledged this concern but said it would require a legal change beyond the clerk/treasurer's office's purview.