MONTPELIER — A write-in campaign for the Progressive Party’s primary had mistakes on the local and state level in tallying votes for two towns, but it’s unclear how the state may address the problem in the future, if at all.
The Vermont Public Interest Research Group pointed to an official count of write-in results that had some significant mistakes as reason to end certain antiquated processes for election tallying, but officials in the secretary of state’s office have cast doubt on the need for changes.
A state canvassing committee certified the winners with official results a week after the primary, but mistakes initially skewed results, preventing write-in candidate Annette Smith from asking for a recount against Progressive Party candidate Martha Abbott because the race wasn’t close enough.
But the secretary of state’s office read faxed results from Hardwick incorrectly and didn’t check the information with a mailed-in copy, which was received after the winners were certified and placed to the side, Secretary of State Jim Condos said.
The Walden town clerk also corrected an initial transposing error, but Stephanie Kaplan, a Smith campaign organizer, said the state apparently never incorporated the correction.
The problems came to light only when Kaplan and two other Smith supporters pointed out the discrepancies a day after winners were certified. The corrected results from Walden alone were enough to allow Smith to start a recount process.
“I think we may be beyond fax technology,” Paul Burns, executive director of VPIRG, said Friday. “That shouldn’t happen any more.”
But after the second canvassing committee meeting, when asked by The Times-Argus and Rutland Herald if the state could minimize or reduce errors in the future, Condos called the results an anomaly.
Burns, however, said the state could look to improve internal checks, and that clerks should be expected to at least file the unofficial results electronically in this day and age.
The state has incorporated an unofficial results tally on the secretary of state’s website, but not every municipal clerk participated. An Associated Press tally provided much more immediate and comprehensive results after polls closed on primary election day.
Municipalities generally then mail in copies of cover sheets to the secretary of state’s office. For the write-in campaign, state staffers then took numbers from clerk’s cover sheets and tallied the numbers on an Excel spreadsheet.
As long as humans are involved in tallying ballots, though, the process might not ever be error-free, Burns said. Condos also noted the mistakes, and said the corrections were to ensure that every vote was noted, not to cast blame by pointing fingers.
The corrected count left Abbott defeating Smith 371-370. The recount begins at 9 a.m. Thursday. If the recount creates a tie, Condos said, the Progressive Party will appoint a candidate to the ballot.
While many people may have cast write-in votes for Smith with Democratic primary ballots, only Progressive Party ballots will count.
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said the mistakes will be ammunition for election law reform as a whole that legislators have been seeking previously.
A few years ago, town clerks had sought to require write-in candidates to formally declare their candidacy, but the change was never adopted, White said. She added she expects the upcoming legislative session will see a similar proposal, especially for statewide races, so that clerks across the state can know about a particular write-in candidate.
But she said changing laws in piecemeal ways overburdens clerks, and she’s more interested in election law overhaul if she is reassigned to chair the Senate’s government operations committee.
“I think it apparently was just an unfortunate human error, but I think our elections are way above board and have a lot of integrity,” White said. “Town clerks all take this very, very seriously and consider themselves as the guardian of elections.”
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