Mail-in ballots during primary provide test-run for November General Election Landgrove claims top voter turnout in VT

Landgrove Justice of the Peace and volunteer poll worker Christine Morfit sanitizes her desk and organizes paperwork between voters during Tuesday’s primary. Photo by Cherise Forbes.

By Cherise Forbes and
Shawn Cunningham

Voting looked more than a little different from past elections in many towns during Vermont’s Primary Election on Tuesday, Aug. 11, due to added precautions and new polling configurations in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, turnout kept pace with past years — even topping those in some communities — and suggested that mail-in ballots will play a large role in the Nov. 3 General Election for area town including Chester, Londonderry, Weston, Cavendish, Andover and Peru.

Landgrove: A town energized by democracy

This isn’t the first time that little Landgrove has topped the percent of voter turnout in the state, but Town Clerk Chrystal Cleary takes pride in her town’s democratic participation nonetheless. For the Aug. 11 primary, Landgrove’s 60 percent voter turnout was higher than any other town in the state.

Though it may seem that any small voter population — 133, in Landgrove’s case — could naturally facilitate high turnout, Cleary posits that excitement around the political process is just part of the community’s culture.

“We seem to really enjoy elections here,” she said. “I’m proud that we have such a high turnout and that I don’t struggle to find volunteers. People want to see it, they want to be a part of it.”

Landgrove voter Asa Chalmers, right, speaks with Town Clerk Chrystal Cleary. Photo by Cherise Forbes.

Tuesday’s primary turnout was more comparable to a general election, Cleary said, with a sharp rise in the number of absentee ballots submitted. While the number of mail-in ballots has been rising year by year, the shift had been slow in Landgrove with less than five absentee ballots submitted at the beginning of Cleary’s tenure. In recent elections, that number grew to around 15 or 20.

On Aug. 11, however, Landgrove’s volunteer poll workers counted a total of 53 absentee ballots.

“This vastly exceeds anything in the past eight years,” Cleary said, noting that postcards sent to voters ahead of the primary may have contributed to the high return rate. “People are also very eager to vote, they’re eager to have an impact on a world that kind of seems out of control in a lot of ways. … voting, even in the primary, is a way for them to know they’re taking action.”

Cleary expects to surpass 53 absentee ballots for the General Election, since all registered and active voters — those who have participated in the last two elections — will be mailed a ballot by the Vermont Secretary of State’s office. For that reason, the Landgrove Town Offices have put extra effort into ensuring that local voters have up-to-date information in the Vermont Election Management system.

Mask compliance was high, Cleary added, and measures like social distancing and sanitizing pens after use were well received. Overall, voters did not seem hesitant to enter Town Hall, which will also be open for inperson voting on Nov. 3.

She speculated that Landgrove’s participation in the General Election will be “the same or even higher” and “the number of people mailing absentee ballots will be higher.” Cleary added, “I bet we get plenty of people who bring their (absentee) ballot with them on Election Day just to stop by.”

Londonderry: Drive through voting well-received

Voter turnout was also higher than usual in Londonderry, according to Town Clerk Kelly Pajala, with 30 percent of registered voters turning out to the polls. The increase in absentee ballots submitted, however, was even larger.

“We had almost twice as many ballots cast in the primary … than we had in the previous statewide primary,” Pajala said. “Absentee ballots were significantly higher than usual. We had more absentee ballots cast this time than we had for the entire vote count in the last primary.”

There were a few new volunteers, she said, mostly consisting of new Londonderry residents. Repeat poll workers also returned, with a few more scheduled to help with the new drive-through voting setup adopted as a Covid-19 precaution. Despite the new voting setup, feedback on the Londonderry Community Forum described the setup as safe, fast and convenient.

“Overall, it seemed like it went well and people didn’t have to wait too terribly long,” Pajala said. “It was as simple as we could make it.”

While the polling location will not change prior to the General Election, Pajala says that the final configuration for polling is still being discussed. Determining factors include weather conditions and the number of voters who turn in absentee ballots prior to Election Day. Regardless, Pajala expects the process to run smoothly again in November and hopes to see similar voter participation.

“It was nice to see that there was much more interest in the primary this time around,” she said. “It seems like people are paying attention and wanting to participate, and that’s part of how democracy works best.”

Chester: More than half of voters mailed in ballots

More than half of the votes cast in Chester on Tuesday were mail-in ballots, according to Town Clerk Deb Aldrich. “We had requests for 623 and 485 of those were returned,” said Aldrich. Subtracting 28 defective ballots that brought the total to 457 out of 775 cast or 59 percent.

By comparison, in the 2016 primary, 653 votes were cast but only 118 of those were absentees.

Poll workers await voters during lunch at Chester Town Hall on Tuesday. Photo by Cynthia Prairie

Aldrich admits that she had some anxiety about the election although “not off the deep end,” but that, in general, things went smoothly.

“We had most of our regular people working the poll and voters pretty much wore masks. A few people showed up without a mask but quickly put one on. There were no issues or comments about that. Some people were frustrated with the masks, but we understand that,” said Aldrich.

A few changes were made to the layout of the Town Hall second floor to make distancing easier, but Aldrich said that didn’t present any problems. Nor did mail-in voting make the day any longer. “We usually wrap up the counting and put out the reports and are done by 9:30 and that was the same this year,” said Aldrich.

Weston: A shortage of volunteers

While the town of Weston saw a small rise in voter turnout at 47 percent, volunteer turnout was less impressive, said Town Clerk Kim Seymour.

“This year I had four people to help with counting — we’re a hand-count town — and I had one or two people help at the polls themselves alongside my two assistants,” Seymour said, adding that the group of poll workers was “considerably smaller” than usual.

“I’m hoping that we can somehow find more volunteers for the General Election,” she added.

Though voting most often takes place at the Weston Town Hall, the Weston Playhouse has been utilized in the past for presidential primaries that have coincided with Town Meeting Day in March. On Tuesday, the Playhouse also proved to be a sufficiently large space for socially distanced voting. Additional safety measures included sneeze guards, personal protective equipment for poll workers, and extra cleaning between voters.

“Because the Playhouse isn’t open this summer, it was serendipitous in a way,” Seymour said. “We were lucky that we had that space as an option.”

The number of absentee ballots processed by the Town of Weston was “extraordinarily higher” than in past years, with nearly 180 sent out and 165 returned. Overall, a total of 73 voters went to the polls to vote in person.

“I’m expecting it to be largely the same for the general election, with more mail-in ballots,” Seymour said. “I was thrilled with turnout, I think it’s always a good thing when we get more voters. It helps us hear more voices.”

Andover: Getting out of the kitchen

Voting in the Andover Town Hall is usually a quiet and cozy experience. With just 429 registered voters, there is seldom a crowd and the whole procedure can be done in its kitchen. But the pandemic changed that.

“Instead of voting in the kitchen, we moved into the main room,” said Andover Town Clerk Jeanette Haight, describing the new procedure in which there was one-way traffic, tape on the floor to direct voters and plexiglass barriers.

Ironically, with more space there were fewer in-person voters. With 121 voters requesting mail-in ballots and 93 of those returned, absentees made up a little under half of the 185 votes cast when six defective mail in votes were subtracted.

Haight said she had been worried about whether her regular poll workers would feel comfortable coming in but it was “no problem.” “I sent out an email about six weeks ago asking if they would come this year and every one of them said they were happy to help,” said Haight.

Cavendish: Mail-in voting a hit with town clerk

I like it, I really do,” said Cavendish Town Clerk Diane McNamara, about the mail-in voting. “We sent out 273 ballots to people who requested them and got 217 back. Voting at the (Proctorsville) fire station went very smoothly and I credit that to the 217. In total, 333 ballots were cast.”

McNamara said mask enforcement at the entrance went smoothly. Her only concern was for her poll workers. “We have an older crew,” she said. “I’ll be recruiting some younger people. We need some new blood.” Three members of the Board of Civil Authority who normally work the election did not attend.

According to McNamara, a surprisingly large number of voters brought their mail-in ballots to the Town Office instead of mailing them. This actually allowed her staff to ask if the voters marked the ballot for the party of their choice and returned the two unused ballots, thus cutting down on the number of defective ballots. In Cavendish, 10 of the 217 ballots were defective.

“That won’t be a problem in the November election,” noted McNamara, “since there’s only one ballot and people can also take advantage of early voting beginning 45 days ahead of Nov. 3.

Peru: New volunteers and a new polling set-up

Voter turnout in Peru held steady compared to past primaries at 36 percent, with a total of 136 out of 374 voters. The number of absentee ballots submitted, however, was substantially higher than usual according to Town Clerk Jennie Freeman.

Peru offers ‘window service’ for voting at Town Hall on Aug. 11.
Photo by Cherise Forbes.

“We typically have maybe 10 or 15,” Freeman said. “Last night we had 76 absentee ballots.” About 20 or 30 of the mail-in ballots requested were not returned, she said, adding that in November she expects that voter turnout will increase due to the nature of the election.

On Tuesday, Peru introduced an outdoor voting set-up that utilized the Town Office building to create a sort of “window service” for voters. Options for the town’s General Election configuration are still being explored, she said.

“Our little walk-through process was great, but if it were 20 degrees out, that would probably not be the case,” she said. “I think a drive-through setup could work for us too.”

One aspect of the primaries that Freeman would like to see repeated is the group of younger volunteers, thanks to renewed recruitment efforts.

“With Covid,” Freeman said, “I decided to reach out to younger community members  … (since) they would feel less at-risk coming to work at the polls. But I also think it’s good to educate some of our younger community members about the democratic system here. It was mostly college-aged kids, and it was good to have that new energy.”

For Primary Election winners and more data, visit the Vermont Secretary of State’s election results.

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Filed Under: AndoverCavendishChesterFeaturedLatest NewsLondonderryWeston

About the Author: Journalist and photographer Cherise Madigan specializes in writing about outdoor recreation, the environment and travel. She has roots in Manchester and a history of reporting throughout Southern Vermont. Madigan is a graduate of Nazareth College of Rochester, earning her degree in Political Science summa cum laude in 2015.

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