Voters and poll workers at Edmunds Middle School in Burlington
Waterbury Town Clerk Carla Lawrence emerged from the municipal office building on Main Street on Tuesday and saw something that surprised her a little — a line. Lawrence had already received more than 1,200 absentee ballots in the mail, so she didn't think too many voters would show up at the polls to vote in the primary.
Three people — the maximum allowed for social distancing — were filling out ballots already, so three waited in the blazing sun.
"It's been steady," Lawrence said.
Vermonters largely heeded requests by elections officials to vote by mail to protect poll workers and their fellow residents from the coronavirus, keeping lines, when they formed, short. But the push for mail-in voting and a high level of interest this year were expected to lift voting turnout to a record high for a primary. Municipal clerks had received at least 110,022 ballots by Monday afternoon, more than the 107,637 votes cast in the entire 2018 primary election, according to the Secretary of State's Office.
Lawrence said she’d already received and tabulated 1,200 absentee ballots — far more than the 988 total votes cast by any means in the 2018 primary. Judging by the in-person turnout, the total voting in town seemed likely to also eclipse the 2016 presidential primary peak of 1,452 votes cast.
That won’t become clear until 7 p.m., but Lawrence said she expects results to be reported on time. That’s because Waterbury, like many other communities in the state, took advantage of relaxed rules that allowed town clerks to begin tabulating ballots well before Tuesday.
Tom Priebe and his wife had planned to vote by mail, but they went camping last week and couldn’t get their ballots off in time. “We got back on Sunday night and then it was like, ‘Oh, shit!’” Priebe said after turning in his ballot to a poll worker.
Due to the smaller in-person turnout, the polling place was moved from the gymnasium of Thatcher Brook Primary School to a small community room in the town offices.
Poll worker Katrina VanTyne greeted voters as they arrived and explained the new system. Even had she not been working the polls, VanTyne said she would have voted in person out of tradition. Her great-grandmother, Ethel Bowen, was the second woman in the state of Maine to vote, back in 1920. Voting has been drilled into the family as an inviolate civic duty.
“I still feel that there is something special about actually going to the polls and casting a vote,” VanTyne said. “Voting by mail, it’s just not as ceremonious.”
Voters, who were required to wear masks, filled out their ballots before feeding them directly into the tabulator.
Such scenes played out around Vermont.
In Williston, only a smattering of residents trickled through the local Vermont National Guard armory to cast ballots Tuesday morning. But the number who voted in advance of Election Day was “unheard of,” Town Clerk Sarah Mason said.
“This is just off the charts,” she said. “Normally, a primary just doesn’t get that much attention, but right now the outreach, the education, the press — all of it — has just really amped up everybody’s interest in something that we should be doing anyway.”
According to Mason, roughly 2,600 Willistonians voted early this year, far more than the 1,500 to 2,000 who typically cast ballots in a primary election. She said she was skeptical when the Secretary of State’s Office delivered 10 pallets of absentee ballots to her office earlier this summer.
“I was like, ‘We’ll never need them. We’ll just never need them,’” she recalled. “And then we ran out.”
Mason said she was pleased with the state’s ad hoc early voting system, and her constituents appeared to share the sentiment.
“People really, really, really liked this,” she said. “I mean, they sent love notes, thank yous on the outside of the [ballot] envelope.”
Inside the armory, not much differed from an ordinary election, save for the face masks and plexiglass shields employed by poll workers. Voters were also asked for the first time to exit through a rear door of the armory to keep foot traffic flowing in one direction.
At Burlington’s Ward 2 in the Old North End, poll workers stood outside the Integrated Arts Academy to greet the occasional voter who strolled up, and directed them inside.
Traffic cones marked where the lines would be if anyone were waiting in line, but when Seven Days stopped by Tuesday morning, none were.
Workers in masks handed over blank ballots and a small pencil. Half the plywood tabletop dividers where voters filled out ballots were taped off, for social distancing.
Outside, immune to the ravages of COVID-19, the usual campaign lawn signs proliferated like mushrooms after a hard rain.
In Duxbury, drive-up voting was in play at the Crossett Brook Middle School.
As cars pulled up, voters handed poll worker Brenda Hartshorn their absentee ballots. If they didn't have them, she handed them three ballots — one for each party — on a clipboard. Bonnie Morse marked them off the voter checklist.
Drivers filled out their ballots from their cars and then pulled up to another station, where they dropped their voted ballots into one box and their unmarked ballots into a second.