In the movies and books, the plot often begins with drama, trauma, chaos and action scenes before leading into the main story. This is done to draw people into the story to find out what happened and what is going to happen next. This article has a different goal: Let us all calm down.
COVID-19 and the associated economic dislocations we have witnessed nationally have affected all of us locally. Daily scenes of mostly peaceful demonstrations yield to nightly violence occurring with great frequency and fury. There is a great political divide between the two parties which is also reflected in media and its coverage of all these issues. Most everyone on all sides of the political spectrum thinks this election is one of the most significant in our nation’s history impacting the future of our county for decades to come.
Among Republican voters there is great concern about the issue of mail in voting. Absentee voting is not an issue since such ballots are requested by the voter who can be tagged on the voter role as having been sent one. Then, when returned, that fact can also be noted on the voter role. But mail in voting is the mass mailing of non-requested ballots to every name on the voter registration list for that jurisdiction. Republicans in deep blue Vermont want to know how up-to-date the voter registration lists are.
As Windham County Republican Chair, I decided to find out as much as I could about how ballots are being sent and handled within Vermont. At a recent visit to a local Post Office I found out that ballots that would normally be forwarded are given the yellow new address sticker, bundled and returned to the Town Clerk’s office, while undeliverable ballots with no forwarding address are also tagged, separately bundled and also returned to the Town Clerk’s office.
Then I contacted Brattleboro Town Clerk Hilary Frances to ask for an in-person meeting in her office to discuss this and related ballot handling issues. She readily agreed to my request. We set Friday afternoon, Oct 9, for the meeting. I met with her and the Town Clerk office staff and volunteers for about 1.5 hours.
I left the Brattleboro Town Clerk’s office fully satisfied that the office is professionally managed and run with great pride and effective due diligence. I further conclude, having seen the process for ballot handling and security, that every Brattleboro voter can rest assured that the tallies we will see after the election November 3 will be accurate. I want to thank Hilary and her staff for a thorough and transparent description and demonstration of the entire ballot handling process with every question I could think of being carefully answered.
Now to some important details of the processes involved. The main issues I was interested in were:
• How ballots were mailed and who did that?
• How are ballots processed when received from the USPS?
• How and when are ballots tabulated?
• How is returned mail handled?
• How is ballot security and vote information security maintained?
First, voter registration information in the entire state of Vermont is handled by the Vermont Secretary of State office. There is a single database for the entire state rather than separate voter lists for each municipality controlled by each Town Clerk’s office.
Second, the mailing of ballots for the primary this year and the general election are all handled by the Secretary of State office using this single database.
Third, the Secretary of State began mailing out ballots to everyone registered to vote in Vermont early in September. They did so alphabetically in a measured way so as not to overwhelm the Postal Service. The mass mailing of all Vermont ballots has been completed.
Fourth, properly prepared mail-in ballots come back to the Town Clerk office with an outer 1st class postage paid envelope, an inner envelope with the ballot itself inside. The inner envelope must be filled out and signed properly or it will not count. Warnings are printed on the inner envelope and separate instruction are included in the package sent to each voter by the Secretary of State.
Fifth, normal ballot processing has many tabulation and security precautions. The person opening ballots each day counts and records each day’s total. Each ballot envelope opened is checked to make sure the town listed inside is the correct town. The inner envelope with the ballot inside is not opened at this time. Inner envelopes do contain a code on the outside indicating which voting district in Brattleboro is the proper one. Inner envelopes are grouped by voting district and placed in a holding bin for later processing. Then the bins are put inside the large vault.
Sixth, some people do not properly fill out the inner envelope. If the inner envelope is not signed for instance, then that becomes a rejected ballot and will not be counted. All rejected ballots are counted, tagged, placed in plastic bags, and kept in the vault for typically 25 months in case of recounts or other audits.
Seventh, processing of ballots using a normal sealed voting machine has begun. It is always done with dual control. One person opens the inner envelope after checking once again that the town and district designation is correct. The other person feeds the ballot into the voting machine in the presence of the other person. Inner envelopes are kept for proper record keeping purposes and for audits.
Eighth, voting machines are sealed with numbered seals. Each AM and PM the seal integrity is checked under dual control. Machine totals are also validated AM and PM, recorded, and compared to the inner envelope tally for each day.
Ninth, ballots rejected by the voting machine are deposited into a secure sealed compartment on the side of the voting machine. Possible reasons for rejection by the voting machine are ballots with improper markings or extraneous marking. Such ballot will be inspected on election eve to discern the voter’s intent.
Tenth, machine totals are kept in the aggregate only. No breakdowns of winners / losers are available to anyone until election eve when the voting machine is closed out and a final tape run.
Eleventh, there are two classes of return mail: 1) Mail that was returned to the Town Clerk office that under other circumstance would have been forwarded to a known new address, 2) Mail that is returned to the Town Clerk’s office because there was no known forwarding address.
Twelfth, two things happen to returned mail that has a new address within the same voting district. The state database is for this person is tagged and then the person is sent a new ballot packet and a cover letter with special instructions. Original returned mail is kept under strict control in the vault.
Thirteenth, for mail returned because the forwarding address is outside the voting district but within Vermont, contact is made with the Town Clerk for the new address and a letter with instructions is sent to the voter to change their registration. Such actions are noted within the registration database so there is no chance for double voting.
Fourteenth, mail returned with no forwarding address available is flagged in the database and the returned mail is also kept in the vault. On election night the voter can approach the Town Clerk where they then live who can then access the database and research and resolve the voter’s eligibility to vote.
Lastly and overall, the security I saw, and integrity of the ballot handling process seems quite strong. Brattleboro has approximately 10,000 voters, 25 percent of whom have so far voted via mail in ballot. Once a voter returns a mail-in ballot their name receives a notation to that effect in the statewide database. Any attempt to register elsewhere or vote elsewhere is illegal and virtually not possible.
I also asked Hilary about several other issues connected to voting and ballots. She indicated that Vermont does not allow ballot harvesting so that is not an issue for us. Voter ID is not a current practice or requirement to vote in Vermont. Voter ID sounds like a reasonable practice which I hope can be advanced in the future.
I have heard anecdotally of several instances, verging on many instances, of households receiving excess ballots: Multiple ballots to the same person or ballots mailed to homes where the person does not reside anymore. Such instances speak to the integrity of registration lists kept by the Secretary of State’s office. The purpose of my research did not cover such important issues, but rather local handling of ballots actually mailed. I am greatly confident about local ballot security and integrity. So, let us all calm down about that at least. Statewide voter registration list integrity and accuracy someone else will have to tackle.