Margolis: Why Vermonters like to handle votes (and political parties) the old-fashioned way

In the great scheme of things, Thursday’s recount in the Progressive Party primary for governor is no big deal.

Neither, come to think of it, is – or was – the Progressive Party candidate for governor.

Maybe neither is the Progressive Party. After all, at last count, only 993 voters cast Progressive ballots. That’s less than one fifth of one percent of the roughly 500,000 voting age citizens in Vermont, and only a smidgen more than one fifth of one percent of the 448,173 registered voters.

And the winner of the recount will not become governor. If she retains her lead (all of one vote) party chair Martha Abbott has already said she will decline the honor and support Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin. Write-in challenger (if that’s the right word; she’s never declared herself a candidate) Annette Smith will not bow out. Neither will she win.

In politics, though, developments which are no big deal in the great scheme of things can still be instructive. In this case, both the recount and the primary raise several interesting questions: why is it so hard to count votes accurately in Vermont? Why did Abbott bother to run in her party’s primary if she and it were going to endorse Shumlin all along?

More broadly, why are there primaries to begin with? What’s their purpose? And did this Progressive primary and the recount – all paid for by the taxpayers – further this purpose?

Let’s start with the vote-counting problem. When there was some confusion in the tabulation on primary night (Aug. 28) and the two following days Republican State Chair Jack Lindley complained that “this entire process has served to cast doubt on the validity, accuracy and accountability of the Secretary of State’s office.”

Well, Secretary of State Jim Condos, a Democrat running unopposed for re-election, may have had a tough few days after the primary. But the main reason Vermont vote-counting can be puzzling has less to do with his agency, or even with the “human error” Condos blamed, than with the simple fact that Vermonters have chosen to have a less efficient vote-counting system.

Kathy Scheele, the director of Elections and Campaign Finance in the Secretary of State’s office, said only 106 of Vermont’s 242 towns use the Accuvote tabulators that automatically and electronically count votes. It isn’t that they don’t want to spend the money to buy the machines, she said; in many cases, her agency offered to buy them. It’s that the towns “like the community spirit of hand counting.”

Scheele seems to be right. Tammy Legacy, the Roxbury town clerk and the first vice president of the Vermont Municipal Clerks’ and Treasurers’ Association, said using a tabulator would make her job easier, “but my Board of Civil Authority did not want tabulators. They like the old way.”

If it wanted to, Vermont could count votes even more quickly. The technology exists – and is used in many other states – for those tabulators to be hooked into one statewide computer system that could count all the votes within an hour or two (though in primaries with a write-in candidate, such as Smith, the counting would take longer). Count them more accurately, too, because the sloppy handwriting and blurry faxes that apparently led to mistakes in the Abbott-Smith contest would become irrelevant.

But that seems to be a political non-starter. Tammy Legacy of Roxbury, noting that she was speaking for herself, not the clerks association, said she thought that that a statewide count would mean “towns would be losing even more. The towns like taking care of themselves.”

Furthermore, scuttlebutt in the political world indicates that some Vermonters fear an automated system could be corrupted. The state is not without its conspiracy theorists.

As to why Vermont decided to have primaries almost 100 years ago, recently retired State Archivist Gregory Sanford suggested checking the history recorded on his former agency’s website.

Until 1918, the site informs, “candidates were selected through a party caucus system based on a hierarchy of town and state delegates.” According to the reformers back then, “the convention has always been a tool easily handled by a clever boss. By trading off minor places and by sharp practices the boss has brought the convention into disrepute as an instrument fitted to express the people’s will.”

So after years of dispute, the Legislature replaced the party convention with direct nominating primaries in 1914.

And who were those reformers?

Progressives. Not the current Progressive Party, a Vermont-only institution, but the nationwide Progressive Party, the “Bull Moosers” Teddy Roosevelt mobilized after he failed to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1912. (TR came in second to Democrat Woodrow Wilson; Republican President William Howard Taft finished last.)

A couple of ironies here. The purpose of this Progressive-inspired reform was to choose party candidates in a more open, democratic, manner. Today’s Progressive Party organization closed ranks behind a non-candidate, discouraging any opposition to what was essentially a political maneuver. Thanks to a spontaneous, grass-roots movement, the maneuver may have failed.

It isn’t that the Progressives are corrupt or boss-ridden. But on the surface, at least, it is the least democratic of the three major parties.

Abbott did not really deny that.

“We hope that will change at some point,” she said. “We’re a small organization, and because we have achieved major party status there’s a public process.”

In effect, Abbott said, she was forced to run for her party’s nomination as a defensive measure. Several years ago, she said, some members of the smaller, father-left Citizens Union Party qualified for the Progressive Party ballot for statewide offices by submitting petitions with enough signatures. At that time, she said, the Progressive leadership organized write-in campaigns and beat the Citizens Union insurgents.

Rather than risk going through that kind of trouble again, she said, she and the other party leaders decided she would run for the nomination to protect the party organization’s strategy of backing Shumlin and concentrating on winning a few legislative races. But with only a few voters likely to turn out for the Progressives, the party was vulnerable to the Smith write-in effort organized by opponents of industrial wind power.

The root cause of this problem – if problem is the right word — is neither Smith nor Abbott nor the anti-wind forces. It’s the people of Vermont, who over the years have decided to set a very low bar (five percent of the vote in any statewide race) for qualification as a “major” party and to eschew party registration in favor of an open system in which any voter can choose the ballot of any major party. In Thursday’s recount, Vermonters are reaping what they have sown.

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Jon Margolis

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  • “Furthermore, scuttlebutt in the political world indicates that some Vermonters fear an automated system could be corrupted. The state is not without its conspiracy theorists.”

    As a computer scientist with a specialization in computer security, I can assure you that it is not only Vermonters that “fear an automated system”, but a very wide range of civil libertarians and technologists. It is certainly not a conspiracy theory. This fear is in part due to poor oversight on the construction and maintenance of such voting systems, which have been shown over and over again to be vulnerable to intrusion and modification. In many cases the proprietary software and hardware used in these voting systems are not tested well enough to be considered “ready for prime time”.

    That said, there will always be a margin of error in both electronic and hand-counted systems. Recounts are there to accommodate this margin and illustrate a feature, not a flaw, in the system. One of the great benefits of hand-counted systems (and fully auditable electronic systems) is its resistance to large-scale malicious or inadvertent manipulation of results.


    I also think the “low bar” of 5% for major-party qualification and the open primaries is a boon, not a problem for Vermonters. Setting the bar higher or locking voters into a particular party only serves to reinforce the two-party system that many of us dislike.

  • Randy Koch

    This piece does not bring out the reason we got into this primary in the first place: it was to oppose Shumlin for his coziness with corporations and, eventually, the military-industrial complex. We tried to broaden this beyond industrial wind to include the opposition to basing the horrendous new F-35 fighters in Burlington, the privacy-destroying smart meters, and the take-over of Vermont’s electrical system by Canadian behemoth, Gaz Métro. Together these represent to us various forms of colonization of our economy, our government, and our society generally.

  • Mr. Margolis discusses an imaginary problem of vote counting inaccuracy when the real problem was one of vote reporting.

    Reality 1 – Margolis 0

    Then he talks about a “fear” of computerized vote counting when the real issue is folks who understand computers understand their shortcomings.

    Reality 2 – Magolis 0

    Our major problem with the primary vote counting was a simple one: some imaginary need for instant gratification (ie. vote counts). All we had to do was wait a few days and the actual count came out.

    So the counts appear accurate (we’ll know better come the recount), and folks have a healthy respect for the fact that people counting works and can’t be tinkered with in the same ease that computerized counting can be.

    • Tom Kingston

      The joy of democracy is that anyone who wants to run for election can. While the author suggests that this particular race is insignificant, it is highly significant to the candidate. On occasion there will be a close vote. The recount the method to double check. It’s not a big deal.

  • Randy Koch

    Au contraire, counting may not work all that well either at least when it comes to write-in votes. The Sec of State complicated things by offerring a personal opinion in public on how to interpret “voter intent”. The county clerk in Burlington seems to have given re-counters improper instructions which may have caused some write-in votes to be declared “spoiled” ballots. Other clerks actually read the law and instructed re-counters correctly that they themselves were the ultimate arbiters of voter intent except if their teams weren’t unanimous in which case the Superior Court judge’s opinion rules.