House Republican leader Don Turner speaks as an election recount is halted Wednesday.
A long-awaited recount of an Orange County House race ended Wednesday before a single ballot had been recounted.
Leaders of all three political parties agreed the recount could not take place because a bag of ballots had been opened in Chelsea in late December. Though the Secretary of State’s Office had been consulted about the opening process, and there was no allegation that ballots were missing, the parties agreed to halt the recount.
“I don’t see how we can move forward,” said Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman (P-Middletown Springs), the House Progressive caucus leader. “The whole point of the recount was to ensure a process we could all have faith in.”
He, along with Republican and Democratic House leaders, declared Rep. Bob Frenier’s (R-Chelsea) election no longer in question.
Though the recount became much ado about nothing, lawmakers said going through the process would help them generate new rules to standardize how all election recounts should be conducted. House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) said she expects legislation to emerge this year on the issue.
Frenier took office in January after an earlier recount, and a court hearing, determined he’d won the November election by seven votes over incumbent Susan Hatch Davis (P-Washington).
Davis turned to the House seeking another recount. She cited concerns about the way ballots were stored and counted in the d
istrict’s various towns.
Frenier admitted relief Wednesday to have the challenge end, but fumed over the process.
“This is the third ring of a three-ring circus,” he said.
Frenier argued that the Attorney General’s Office should have investigated Davis’ allegations. Instead, that office issued a report focusing on the fact that the House had the legal right to authorize a recount.
Despite an outcry from Republicans, the House agreed to conduct the recount, which was scheduled to begin Wednesday. Teams of legislators from all political parties gathered and were cordoned off from the public in a Statehouse meeting room. Members had established a host of rules that included halting the recount if it was determined any of the ballots had been tampered with.
They never saw a single ballot before House Government Operations Committee chair Maida Townsend (D-South Burlington) declared the process over.
Townsend said lawmakers don’t believe any ballots were “tampered with” maliciously. “We’re accusing no one of anything,” she said.
But her committee learned Tuesday that a Chelsea bag had been opened in December to retrieve a voter checklist that had been inadvertently sealed inside the bag. That, she said, constituted a violation of the rules the House had established for the recount. She said she was displeased that she just learned of the bag opening this week.
The Secretary of State’s Office had advised Chelsea town clerk Karen Lathrop that she could open the bag in the presence of her deputy clerk. Townsend, though, said state law requires a clerk who is reopening ballot bags to be witnessed by two election officials from different parties.
Elections director Will Senning defended the advice his office offered, saying the law could be interpreted to include the clerk as one of the witnesses.