Putney mulls buying electronic vote-counting machine


Saturday, February 24
PUTNEY -- Counting the votes every election day in town is as much a civic duty as it is a social gathering.

Every year, after town meeting, and every other year in November, the justices of the peace sit down at long tables and count every piece of paper, one by one.

Sometimes there is a pizza to share, and when the weather blows cold outside, the justices settle in for a long, slow, cozy night of tabulation.

But at this year's town meeting, Putney residents will decide if it is time for technology to trample one more time-honored tradition.

Article 13 on this year's town meeting warning asks if the town wants to accept a free, electronic vote-counting machine from the state.

The machine will allow Town Clerk Anita Coomes to do with the turn of a key what it takes the justices hours to accomplish after every election.

And that is just fine with Coomes.

"Those days start very early and end very late," Coomes said about the all-night vote counting. "I know people like to get together and do this and I think that's wonderful, but it's really about the time."

Coomes said she is going to try to convince the town that it is indeed time for Putney to inch into the 21st century.

The vote will be taken from the floor of town meeting.

Electronic voting machines have been increasing in popularity every year, Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz said. Of the 246 municipalities in Vermont, 75 used an optical scan tabulating machine for the 2006 general election.

Two other towns have since passed a vote to bring the machines on and 38 additional towns, along with Putney, are going to consider it at town meeting next month.

"We've had more towns asking for the machines after last year's recount," Markowitz said about the contested state auditor's election that was overturned after a hand recount. "The recount showed that the machines were very reliable."

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In the November election, the Republican incumbent Randy Brock beat the Democratic challenger Tom Salmon by 137 votes.

When the votes were recounted Salmon jumped ahead of Brock and won the office by 102 votes.

Most of the mistakes were made in towns that hand-counted the votes when the tallies were transposed from one piece of paper to another.

Markowitz also said the state recommends that any town with more than 800 registered voters move on to electronic voting machines.

Putney has just more than 1,400 registered voters.

The decision in Putney has an added urgency as the state is using a federal grant to pay for the machines, and Vermont towns have the opportunity in March to get the $6,350 tabulators for free.

That grant runs out this year and Markowitz said the offer will not be extended.

Wilmington and Newfane voters will also take up the question. While Wilmington supports the changeover, the Newfane Selectboard hopes voters will defeat the effort and keep counting by hand.

The machines do carry annual costs as they need to be programmed before every election, which can cost between $750 and $1,500 depending on the size of the ballot.

There is also a yearly $250 maintenance fee.

Jackie Walker, a three-term justice of the peace, said the town is getting along just fine, thank you very much, counting the ballots by hand.

Walker is skeptical of the machines and she said there has never been any problem with the counts in Putney.

"I don't think it is necessary," Walker said about changing over to the machines. "Anita sets us up and we sit there and concentrate until we get it right. There are always lots of people to do it. There is a sense of community about doing it."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com or (802) 254-2311, ext. 279.


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