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I Was a Recount Volunteer


*** UPDATE: The Burlington Free Press reports that the totals are in, and Peter Shumlin is the winner of the Democratic gubernatorial primary. ***

Last week, I received mass emails from the Doug Racine and Peter Shumlin campaigns calling for volunteers to help recount ballots in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Racine trails Shumlin by only 197 votes so he called for a statewide recount of 75,000-plus ballots — and it was all hands on deck.

I signed up to be a volunteer online. As a Vermont citizen and as a reporter. I figured it would be educational and a chance to witness and participate in a rare political event.

After initially being told by the campaigns they didn't need me, the Shumlin campaign called at 10 a.m. Thursday to say they needed loads more volunteers at the Chittenden County Superior Courthouse in Burlington.

When I arrived, the place was crawling with volunteers. They sat four to a table in the stately lobby and an adjacent conference room. I filled out a form that asked who I supported in the primary: Shumlin, Racine or "other?" I checked "other" simply because it required an answer. I swore an oath to uphold Vermont's laws and principles and was directed to the side room. There, I and others sat bored for almost an hour.

There were five tables in this room but only one was actually counting ballots. Everyone else was reading books they'd brought, magazines, newspapers or geeking out on their iPhones. More than one person grumbled to me about how they'd been summoned here in a hurry, only to sit around and wait. Few seemed to know what the hold-up was.

Finally we got a job: Hand count the blank ballots cast in one Colchester district (the ones with no choice for governor) and make sure the number agreed with the "blank ballots" number on the receipt printed out from the optical scan tabulator machine. They did. There were fewer than 10 blanks.

Each table of four could have no more than two supporters for either Shumlin or Racine. Those are the rules. Our table had three Shumlin supporters, plus me. So before we could begin, we had to replace one Shumlin volunteer with an "other."

There were no hanging chads, no election monitors staring quizzically at dimpled ballots, nor other election recount nightmares. In fact, the only slightly questionable ballot I saw was one where the voter had simply drawn slash marks through the ovals rather than filling them in. But the voter's intent was crystal clear: He or she slashed the oval for Racine.

Democrats have said the recount would go quickly because they authorized doing it using tabulator machines, rather than hand-counting every ballot. But that doesn't tell the whole story. Our group's next job involved a cumbersome hand-count simply to test the accuracy of one of the tabulator machines.

The machine was from Essex and apparently the wrong memory card had been loaded onto the scanner. So after the card corresponding to this election was inserted, we had to verify the machine wasn't going all HAL 9000 on us.

An official from the company that services the voting machines instructed us that he would feed 19 dummy ballots with randomly filled-in bubbles through the machine. These were Democrat, Republican and Progressive test ballots. The ones filled out incorrectly (e.g. voted for two gubernatorial candidates instead of just one) spit back out as unacceptable. He could manually override the machine and feed those ballots through as "blanks," essentially an incorrect of "non" vote. Then he printed off the long receipt that shows the results.

We paired off. Our job was to hand-tabulate each race on the dummy ballots. One volunteer would read off the filled in bubbles, the other would write them down. Then, we switched so each pair had counted each party's dummy ballots once — or twice total. All that just to make sure the machines were calibrated correctly. It was going to be a while.

The numbers all added up. The machine was apparently working fine. But the actual counting of ballots from that Essex precinct had not yet begun. It was almost 2 p.m. I had a prescheduled appointment I couldn't get out of. So I had to split.

According to the Times-Argus, Racine's chances don't look good. The recount has only widened Shumlin's lead, by 17 votes — putting him more than 200 ahead of Racine.

Chittenden County hasn't finished its recount yet, but it certainly isn't for lack of volunteers.