Democrats and Progressives in the Vermont legislature are about to override a local election that was conducted correctly and lawfully by experienced town clerks and certified by a Vermont court. They are using the legislature’s constitutional authority to rule on the “qualifications and elections” of its members to override the election of a Republican by counting the votes in the Orange-1 District for a third time.
There are several troubling aspects to this. One is that the original vote count wasn’t all that close and the closely supervised recount changed only one vote. The original hand or tabulator vote count in the six towns of the Orange-1 District showed Republican challenger Bob Frenier won the election with 1853 votes while incumbent Progressive Susan Hatch Davis received only 1845 votes. An all-tabulator recount and court certification process showed Davis’ vote remained unchanged at 1845 while Frenier lost one vote and got 1852. Why is a third count needed?
Another sobering element is the re-recount will be done by legislators themselves, not election professionals, and according to rules of the majority party’s own making, not according Vermont election statutes. The majority party specifically rejected a minority party amendment that would have required any further vote counting to be conducted according to Vermont law. The partisan nature of that decision offers Vermonters no constitutional or statutory assurances the will of Orange-1 voters will be respected.
In her report to the legislature, Government Operations chair Maida Townsend (D-South Burlington) said the main reason for wanting a third count of the votes was that, BEFORE ballots were inserted into the tabulator, they had not been inspected for stray marks on the paper that might have altered the tabulators legendary reputation for accuracy. She ignored the fact that state law requires such inspections AFTER the tabulator count and she presented no evidence to the full House that any stray marks even existed.
Thetford Town Clerk Tracy Borst disputed Rep. Townsend’s allegations in a letter to House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and other state officials. “The ballots were viewed first, as they went into the tabulator, then either viewed a second time for voter intent, or counted (viewed) a second and third time if they were in the hand count pile. Visual inspection is certainly part of our procedures. In my opinion, the recount team did their due diligence, followed procedures, and confirmed the results. Representative Townsend is mistaken if she believes the ballots were not visually inspected in the recount process. This all could have been clarified if the officials that conducted the recount had been invited to testify.”
The impact of this fact-free legislative decision to interfere in Vermont’s non-partisan election process will be considerable for some time to come unless House Democrats reconsider. What losing candidate in a future close election will accept the outcome of a court certified recount if they can address their grievances to their party colleagues in the legislature, even if no meaningful procedural errors can be cited?
More importantly, how can Vermont voters be guaranteed their votes will always be counted in a fair and non-partisan way if this third counting of the ballots in Orange-1 is allowed to be conducted for spurious reasons by legislators who voted along party lines to ignore existing law when they count votes? Alexander Hamilton said, “This great source of free government, popular election, should be perfectly pure, and the most unbounded liberty allowed.” Our own Vermont constitution has similar sentiments: “That all elections ought to be free and without corruption…”
But based on a sloppy investigation that misrepresented crucial facts, the Vermont House of Representatives has chosen along party lines to override a court-certified election result. So their new vote count will be neither “perfectly pure” nor guaranteed to be conducted “without corruption.” Since all the traditional safeguards have been removed, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson needs to review all the facts and put a stop to this before real damage is done to Vermont’s sacred tradition of non-partisan elections.
Bob Frenier is a newly elected Representative to the VT House from the Orange-1 district. A Chelsea area resident since 1992, he is an active trustee of the Chelsea Health Center and a former volunteer firefighter/EMT.