'Unprecedented' number of absentee ballots in Brattleboro

Brattleboro Town Clerk Hilary Francis feeds the mail-in ballots for the Vermont State Primaries into a tabulator on July 29. Hilary said her office received 1,100 ballots from the 3,100 that were mailed out ahead of the August 11 primary.

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BRATTLEBORO — For the March election, the town will not be doing a mass mailing of ballots.

Voters can still call or email the town clerk’s office in order to get ballots mailed to them ahead of the election.

“I’m eager, as I was in August and November, to do everything possible to increase voter participation while also prioritizing the health of our community and decreasing the number of people who actually show up to the polls because of the pandemic,” Town Clerk Hilary Francis said at the Select Board meeting held remotely Tuesday.

While mailing ballots to all active registered voters — as was done by the state in November — would make the election more accessible in one way, Francis found a “drawback.”

“It favors a particular demographic in that people who own homes and are stable in their rentals aren’t moving around as much and they won’t have to call us to request their ballots,” she said. “They’ll automatically be mailed a ballot. Those who are less stable and more transient would have to call us every time they’re moving in order to get a ballot sent to the correct location.”

Francis said there’s pending emergency legislature in Montpelier that would allow towns to mail ballots to all active registered voters for 2021 if select boards opt to do so. If the board wanted to do that, she said the process should have started “probably a few months ago in all reality.”

Francis recommended going with the traditional process, where voters can opt to vote early by request or come to the polls in person the day of the election.

“We’re happy to mail it,” she said.

The town would need to mail ballots to more than 8,000 voters and the timeline is tight, Francis said. She described it being “a lot more manageable” to send ballots to those who request them.

Petitions aren’t required this year for candidates. Francis said those who wish to run must submit a consent of candidate form by Jan. 25.

“Once we have that, we need to put together a ballot, which I’ve already started proofing,” she said, describing how her office and a printing company go back and forth a couple of times before finalizing the ballot.

Francis anticipates the ballots would arrive to her office around Feb. 8. Then, she said, they must tested with the tabulators to ensure there are no errors.

Early voting begins Feb. 10.

Francis said there have been discussions about the town hiring a mailing house.

“The mailing house that did this for the state in November has said that they’re not doing it for the local elections,” she said. “We also talked about how that takes away some of our control.”

Francis said issues with the mass mailing from the state in November involved ballots being bounced back due to errors involving wrong zip codes and apartment numbers.

“It didn’t happen much in Brattleboro but it did happen in other towns,” she said, adding that concerns were raised with “such a tight turnaround.”

She said due to COVID-19 protocols on keeping physical distance, her office can’t be filled with volunteers to help.

Normally, 10 to 15 percent of voters participate in Brattleboro’s Town Meeting Day vote. Francis said mailing ballots may increase that number.

“But if you look at the November turnout, we had more voters than we’ve ever had but we also had a larger checklist and the percentage of turnout was actually slightly lower than four years ago,” she said. “So it didn’t show that there was an increase in voter participation.”

She also noted how funding for mailing ballots had not been included in this year’s budget.

Rather than having an in-person annual meeting, the Windham Southeast School District opted to vote on items via Australian ballot on the same day towns will be voting. Francis said the district’s four towns — Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney — will send WSESD ballots by request but won’t be doing a mass mailing.

Select Board Vice Chairwoman Elizabeth McLoughlin said using a different method for the town ballot would cause confusion. Other board members also supported the strategy proposed by Francis.

Board member Daniel Quipp, who suggested the subject come up in a public meeting, didn’t initially like the idea of not mailing ballots but said he accepted the reasoning cited by Francis and wanted as much promotion done as possible to inform the public about the decision. He noted how voters will be asked about whether to allow retail sales of marijuana products in Brattleboro.

Board member Ian Goodnow, who also serves on the Board of Civil Authority, said he respects the town clerk’s opinion and her handling of elections during a pandemic.

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