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What Happens to All Those Extra Primary Ballots?

Local Matters


Published September 1, 2010 at 10:31 a.m.

When Vermonters went to the polls on Tuesday, August 24, they received not one but three ballots — one for each of the state’s major political parties. The instructions were clear: Fill out one ballot and discard the remaining two.

What happens to all the extra ballots? And how much does Vermont’s pro-print practice cost the state, which can ill afford to waste any money right now?

Vermont has an “open” state primary system, which means voters can select from among candidates put forth by any one of three major parties. They don’t have to declare a party affiliation or register in advance. Privacy laws prevent election officials from asking which ballot they’d like, so each voter gets all three. Only presidential primaries require Vermont voters to publicly choose a party — and a ballot.

For every election, the Vermont Secretary of State’s office prints ballots for 50 percent of the state’s voter rolls. At present, about 440,000 Vermonters are registered to vote. This means 220,000 ballots are printed for each of the major parties, for a total of 660,000 ballots.

Each of those ballots costs 20 to 25 cents to print, says Kathy DeWolfe, the state’s director of elections and campaign finance. Assuming each ballot cost 20 cents, the total charge for the primary ballots rings in around $132,000.

This year, voter turnout was better than expected for a nonpresidential primary. About 23 percent of the state’s electorate, or about 101,000 people, came out to vote, largely due to a hotly contested, five-way Democratic gubernatorial race.

But of the reams of ballots printed for the occasion, about 560,000 weren’t filled out, costing the state $112,000 in wasted paper, ink and printing. Many voters are concerned about the environmental impact of the waste, according to Carol Dawes, Barre’s city clerk and treasurer. This past Primary Day, numerous voters asked her why two-thirds of the ballots are thrown out.

Disposal doesn’t happen right away. State law requires that ballots — even the blank ones — be stored in official ballot bags for 22 months. After that, they can be discarded in whatever manner the town clerk sees fit, DeWolfe says.

Most town officials recycle the ballots, and some shred the loose, blank ones to make sure they don’t cause confusion. Dawes simply puts the packages of ballots in the office’s municipal recycling bin.

Some clerks find more creative uses for the extra ballots. Kathy Smardon of Williston says she’ll give the unopened packages to school classes to use for art projects or civics lessons.

In Westford, all unused and unopened ballots are picked up and shredded by Rovers North — the North American distributor for Land Rover parts, which is based in the town. The shredded ballots then become packing material for the company’s car parts.

“In a sense they’re being recycled,” says Westford town clerk Nanette Rogers, “because they’re used to ship parts all over the world.”

There’s no question Vermont’s open primary system and its desire to protect voter privacy result in a lot of waste. But inaccurate voter rolls are to blame for at least some of the excess, says Dawes. She estimates that the number of registered voters in Barre — 6937 — is a “bloated figure.”

Last August, Dawes challenged more than 2500 of those names based on residency, but it takes two general-election cycles — with no sign of civic life on the part of the “voter” — before she can “purge” them. Those particular names won’t be removed from the list until after the 2012 presidential election.

Until then, the state will continue to send Barre City far more ballots than it needs. This year, the city received a total of 10,500 ballots — 3500 for each party. Only 1202 people voted.

“So I’ve got a lot of boxes,” Dawes says. “I’m looking forward to getting the list purged, so we don’t have to kill so many trees.”