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Ballot-Box Bingo

Fair Game


Published November 12, 2008 at 6:27 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

More election-night snafus in Burlington have some local politicos wondering: Can the Queen City hold an error-free election?

City and state officials agree that state election laws are too cumbersome for a city the size of Burlington. They say they will push the upcoming legislature to make some changes — namely, allowing them to release results earlier and finding a way to make counting write-in votes less time-consuming.

But one critic, Jake Perkinson, chair of the Burlington Democrats, says the city should have been better prepared, given the problems it’s encountered in the past two years. During the September primary, not enough ballots were delivered to some of the city’s precincts. In March 2007, a ballot box was unsealed multiple times between election night and a scheduled recount.

Mayor Bob Kiss needs to do more to assure voters that an election can be held without mistakes, Perkinson said.

“I would be satisfied if we could merely establish that the vote counts are being done correctly,” he said. “Since it’s too late to do anything about prior elections, it seems irrelevant that the prior administration might have also made mistakes.”

“We all know it is more complicated here,” Perkinson added, “and that means that officials should be prepared to deal with it, and their failure to be able to deliver results in a timely manner is evidence of incompetence.”

“Incompetence,” eh? Sounds like the makings of a campaign theme. Two Democratic Burlington city councilors, Ed Adrian and Andy Montroll, have announced they will challenge Kiss’ bid for a second three-year term in March.

But Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, a Democrat, disagrees that the city’s election officials are not up to the task. “City election officials are doing a great job overall,” she said. “State laws need to be changed to make it easier for Burlington.”

Burlington Chief Administrative Officer Jonathan Leopold said that what happened November 4 is unrelated to problems encountered in the primary and last spring. That night, Denise Begins Barnard went to bed thinking she had beaten fellow Democrat and Progressive Burlington City Councilor Tim Ashe by a sizeable margin to become Chittenden County’s sixth senator.

According to Leopold, however, at about 1:30 a.m., a tired election worker typed in “157” instead of “1577” when recording the votes for Ashe in a spreadsheet for the media.

“It was simply a data-entry error,” he said. “We did everything that night by the book.”

Meanwhile, Wards 1 and 3 were late getting results due to heavy write-in ballots, so city officials called election workers to get their tabulator results. A failure of the city’s election software earlier in the day precipitated the need for entering the data manually, and those numbers weren’t double-checked against the ballot reports before being handed over to the media, Leopold said.

In previous years, city officials released “unofficial” results by 9 p.m., much to everyone’s delight. After all ballots were fed into the machines, a printed readout, the memory card and the machines themselves were delivered to City Hall.

Elections Director Jo LaMarche would then use a software program to merge the results into one report for distribution to the media and the candidates. Poll workers would remain at their posts for several more hours to count write-in candidates and compare the checklist to the number of votes tallied.

That approach, however, violated state election law. According to Markowitz’ office, releasing results, even unofficial ones, from a software program that merges district results is not allowed. The forms created by the software program also didn’t meet state standards.

State law requires that unofficial results not be released until all the ballots, including write-ins, are accounted for and tallied. This year Burlington election workers had more than 2000 write-in votes to count, with most of those coming in three races: justice of the peace (625), high bailiff (280), and state senate (243).

Those 2000 names had to be recorded three times on separate tally sheets by election workers. It wasn’t until those names were written down that the ballot machines were sent to City Hall.

Making the process even more onerous, votes in Vermont are recorded by district. While most towns have a single district, Burlington has six, some of which cross multiple wards. One district crosses five wards.

When LaMarche left her Burlington post, the state elections division asked the Kiss administration to take a new approach to how it oversaw elections and tallied votes. Kathy DeWolfe, the state elections director, said the city has come a long way and is now running elections according to state law.

And, yes, that means it may take longer to get results.

One election official who has been critical of the Kiss administration said the city has greatly improved since the September primary.

“The city did everything they could to help the ward clerks,” said Ward 6 Election Clerk Owen Mulligan, who agrees state laws need to be relaxed to allow for earlier release of results to the media. “It would also take the pressure off the poll workers knowing that the media is breathing down our necks, so to speak, for results.”

For Barnard, the election night screw-up was heartbreaking and raises questions about the veracity of the results. The final count was made official Monday: Ashe, 28,103 votes to Barnard’s 27,687, a difference of 416. She has 10 days to file a recount request, and told “Fair Game” she could make a decision by late this week.

“I go back and forth between the contributions and service people put into my campaign and the cost for the county taxpayers and the seven days it would take a recount, and could I make up that kind of difference,” Barnard said.

Two years ago, a recount after a Democratic primary for the state senate took 118 volunteers seven consecutive days to count just 10,000 ballots. In the end, it did not affect the outcome of the race. Roughly 50,000 ballots were cast in Tuesday’s election.

Any volunteers?


Not-So-Grand Old Party? — While the Democrats and Progressives continue to wring their hands over how to work together (or not), Republicans have plenty to worry about, too.

The GOP had targeted two counties in hopes of picking up four or five House seats and at least one Senate seat. They fell well short, losing a House seat (they now stand at 48 out of 150 seats) and remaining steady in the Senate, where they hold seven out of 30 seats.

And, while the party ran candidates for attorney general and secretary of state, both of whom lost, no Republican ran for auditor, treasurer or U.S. House. In the latter, freshman Democratic Rep. Peter Welch got a free ride.

Former Republican state Rep. Tom Little, who was chairman of the Judiciary Committee when it created civil unions, has some advice for his fellow Republicans. “Up until the late 1950s and early 1960s,” Little said, “if someone wanted to get into politics and run for office you joined the Republicans, kind of the way it is with Democrats today.”

That cycle may take time to repeat itself. In the meantime, Little said, the GOP should focus on connecting with community leaders and encourage them to run for office.

Gov. Jim Douglas has done little to build a backbench of successors, as did the last Republican governor, Richard Snelling, said University of Vermont political-science prof Garrison Nelson. That allowed Democrats to pick up several statewide seats. It also led to Dean holding court for 11 years.

“There is nobody in the legislature he can count on to follow him,” Nelson said. “[Lt. Gov.] Brian Dubie is very conservative socially. He is not a New England Republican — socially liberal and fiscally conservative.”

Democrats, he adds, should let Douglas be only the third governor to run for a fifth term in Vermont history. “Let the Douglas era be the Douglas era,” Nelson said, “because there is no one to succeed him.”

Former Middlebury College professor Eric Davis agrees that no Republican has emerged as a likely successor to Douglas. “I think they have real problems, post-Douglas,” Davis said. “Who is their bench?”

That’s a question plenty of folks are asking: former State Auditor Randy Brock’s name pops up regularly; and possibly Martha Rainville, if she were to return to Vermont.

With thinning ranks in the House, though, the challenge is daunting, and one key leader is stepping aside. Rep. Steve Adams, of Hartland, is resigning as minority leader and is backing the current second-in-command Rep. Patti Komline, of Dorset, for the post.

As for the Democrats, Nelson and Davis agree the party may want to give Douglas a pass in 2010 and prepare for taking over the governor’s office in 2012 or 2014.

“If you look at the history of Vermont since 1962,” Davis said, “every time there is a change in the governor’s office, the other party will take over. He’ll be succeeded by a Democratic governor.”

Nelson adds that Democrats should go ahead and let Anthony Pollina run against Douglas in 2010. If he wins, Dems achieve their goal of getting Douglas out of office. If he loses, they achieve their goal of getting Pollina out of the way.

The Douglas Shuffle — With three terms under his belt and another one about to get underway, Douglas is welcoming some new faces to top leadership posts.

Just days after the election, Vermont Economic Development Commissioner Mike Quinn announced he was stepping down to head back to the private sector from whence he came.

Agency of Natural Resources Secretary George Crombie — whom“Fair Game” readers know played the role of Darth Vader to the Intervale’s rebel compost alliance — has left “to pursue other opportunities.”

Word from inside ANR is, Crombie was rubbing agency staff and Douglas aides the wrong way. In fact, sources tell “Fair Game” the ANR chief seemed to be out of state more than in for the past few months. Maybe job hunting? Or, maybe it was Douglas’ way of encouraging Crombie to find a new one.

There have been nothing but kind words for his replacement, former Forest, Parks & Recreation Commissioner Jonathan Wood.

As for Wood’s successor, longtime gubernatorial spokesman Jason Gibbs is rumored to be interested.

After six years of churning out paper praising the governor’s work and words, reforestation may be in order.

Mega Dittos WVMT! Barack Obama’s election and the GOP’s trouncing is likely to drive conservatives even more toward talk radio for solace.

King of those talkers is Rush Limbaugh and, as of November 17, he’ll have a new home in Vermont. Limbaugh’s show is leaving 960 AM for WVMT (620 AM), home to Dennis Miller, Howie Carr, Laura Ingraham and Bill O’Reilly and the popular “Charlie & Ernie Show.” O’Reilly’s show will be bumped to 6 p.m., and one hour apiece will be dropped from Carr and Miller to make way for Rush.

Liberals with low blood pressure are also encouraged to tune in.

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