An absentee ballot envelope explicitly instructs voters to mail all ballots back. Many voters didn't.
The number of Vermonters voting by mail soared to record levels during this week’s primary.
So did the number of people who completely botched it.
Of the approximately 174,000 people who cast ballots in the August 11 primary, preliminary figures suggest that more than 6,000 screwed up the process badly enough that their votes weren't counted.
“It’s a concern that we had 6,000 votes that were not counted for one reason or another,” Secretary of State Jim Condos said Friday. “It would be wrong if I just sat back and said, 'That’s acceptable.'”
The exact numbers won’t be final until next week. But early indications are that at least three times as many people — maybe more — cast “defective” ballots on Tuesday, compared to those cast in recent primary elections. Such ballots are thrown out and not counted.
State elections officials said they expected a higher rate of defective ballots this year because many people were voting by mail for the first time.
Vermont has an open primary, meaning that all voters receive a ballot for each major party in the state but can vote with just one. That can be confusing for voters who’ve never participated in a primary before.
Many — but not all — town clerks inserted instruction sheets in the absentee ballot package mailed out to voters who requested them.
These sheets are supposed to give voters clear, concise step-by-step instructions for how to fill out their ballot and mail it back, Condos said. The sheets largely repeat the instructions preprinted on the envelopes, which tell voters, "If you do not return all ballots — including unvoted ballots — your vote will not count."
“Despite that, we still have people who just didn’t follow the rules,” Condos said.
Chief among the offenses was filling out more than one ballot. After picking one ballot to vote, the voter is supposed to place the two unvoted ballots in an envelope and return them.
Some people seemed not to understand this and marked more than one ballot. That invalidates them both. Some also failed to return the unvoted ballots. That invalidates the one they did return, Condos explained.
And still others forgot to sign their names on the outside of the envelope containing their marked ballot, known as the certification envelope, he said.
These requirements all exist to ensure the integrity of the absentee ballot system, but many voters didn’t get the memo.
“It’s never been as big a problem as it was this year,” Condos said. “And now that it’s happened, we’re going to take a look at that again."
The general election will have a significantly lower defective ballot rate because, even though all active voters in the state automatically will have a ballot mailed to them, it will only be a single ballot, not three, he explained.
In addition, the ballots will be mailed out by the state-contracted mailing house, not individual town clerks. They will all include the same clear, concise instructions for voting and returning the ballots, Condos said.
The envelopes will also be designed differently, with a red stripe on them to better signify them as a voted ballot. This should help the post office deliver the ballots back to clerks on time, Condos said.
It's possible some of the “defective” ballots include ones that clerks received late, he said.
Will Senning, the state’s director of elections, said he figured there would be an increase in the rate of defective ballots and that it was “about in line with what I expected.”
Condos said elections officials plan to meet with some clerks to discuss how to get the defective ballot rate as low as possible for the general election.
Ballots for that election will start to be mailed out by September 18, Condos said.
“My nature is to see what we can find for solutions to overcome that issue and try to reduce that number significantly,” he said.