Panel recommends ground rules for House recount

Bob Frenier
Rep. Bob Frenier, R-Chelsea, in the House Chamber. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

A panel of lawmakers has developed rules and proposed a date for the first House of Representatives recount of a legislative election since 1985.

“I think it would be great today if we could come out of the committee 11-0-0,” said Rep. Robert LaClair, R-Barre Town, a House Government Operations Committee member, before a vote Tuesday on the “policies and procedures” for the recount.

The panel did just that, breaking a string of party line votes about the contested election that a judge ruled Bob Frenier, a Chelsea Republican, won over former Rep. Susan Hatch Davis, P-Washington. Frenier’s margin of victory at last count was seven votes.

The panel is aiming to hold the new recount starting Feb. 22. It is possible tallying the votes from the Orange-1 District’s six towns could stretch into a second day.

The panel’s recommendations, contained in H.R.10, now head to the full House for action, which is expected this week.

The full House voted earlier this month to grant the new recount request from Hatch Davis. However, while the Vermont Constitution allows for such action, it does not say how it must be carried out.

The House called on the chamber’s Government Operations Committee to draft those rules, and Tuesday the panel adopted them after roughly 90 minutes of discussion.

A four-member subgroup of the committee met earlier this week to provide a draft for the full panel to consider.

The rules provide a road map for carrying out the new recount. They cover everything from how ballots will be picked up from the six town offices to what to do if someone has tampered with a ballot bag.

A sheriff would collect the ballots from the Orange County towns after the Office of Legislative Council provides the subpoenas granting the authority to take them to the Statehouse, where they may be kept overnight.

“They would be locked in a storage room off Room 11,” said Rep. John Gannon, D-Wilmington, a committee member who helped draft the rules. “They will change the locks on the storage room, they will change the locks on Room 11.”

A special panel of 23 House members would make up the “recount team,” including 11 Republicans and a total of 11 Democrats and Progressives.

Rep. Maida Townsend, D-South Burlington, chair of the House Government Operations Committee, will serve in the same role on the special panel. She’ll be joined by two assistants, the heads of the Republican and Progressive caucuses in the House.

Ballots will be counted one town at a time. The ballots will be stacked in piles of 50 before they are fed into a tabulator. A team will look at the ballots before they head to the next set of lawmakers feeding them into the tabulator.

If the circle next to a candidate’s name is not “completely” filled in, lawmakers will set the ballot aside for further review. If that team of four members can’t agree on the voter’s intent, the ballot will go to Townsend and the two party caucus leaders.

Rep. Maida Townsend is chair of the Government Operations Committee.

They will inspect the ballot, with the final ruling coming from a majority vote.

Under current law, the “visual inspection” of ballots is not a requirement before ballots are placed in a tabulator.

If any of the ballot bags appears to have been tampered with, such as a broken seal or recent damage to the container, the recount will be called off and Frenier declared the winner, according to the proposed rules.

While Tuesday’s committee session was congenial, the debate over the contested election has been testy.

House GOP members contend that the matter has turned partisan. They say if Democrats and Progressives are successful in ousting Frenier there will one less GOP member in the chamber, making it hard for that party to sustain a veto by Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

Currently, Republicans hold 53 seats, with 51 votes needed to sustain a veto.

The Vermont Town Clerks and Treasurers Association has also opposed a new recount, issuing a statement prior to the House vote.

It claimed allowing a new recount at this stage would undermine town clerks and set a bad precedent that could lead to more losing candidates petitioning the House seeking similar treatment.

Prior to the judge’s ruling in the race declaring Frenier the winner, results on Election Day and a later recount also showed him with more votes than Hatch Davis, who had served five terms in the House.

Democrats and Progressives deny their actions are driven by party politics, arguing they want to ensure the accuracy of the vote count so the public can have confidence in the election’s outcome.

The recount provision in state statutes, according to House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, does not adequately address visual inspection of ballots that are counted by tabulators.

“I don’t think it sets precedent because it has happened before, it’s not the first time,” Johnson added. “We need to ensure that the person the voters elected is representing them.”

The rules the Government Operations Committee recommended Tuesday call for the “recount team” not to mix with the public, who will be looking on as the votes and ballots are counted.

The team will be in a special section of Room 11 and even use a separate entrance to prevent any possible tampering with the election by the public.

Sergeant-at-Arms Janet Miller told the committee Tuesday she could also provide all the recount team members with special badges, asking them what color they preferred.

“Red,” said Rep. Ronald Hubert, R-Milton, a committee member, “so it stands out nice and bright.”

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Alan J. Keays

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  • If every ballot is going to be inspected prior to (yet one more time) insertion into a counting machine, why not simply do a hand count? Our lives and politics do not have to be subservient to electronics.

    • Matt Young

      They have already been counted…at least TWICE. Accepting results of an election, it’s what big kids do.

  • Mary Daly

    If the Government Operations Committee had chosen to have the 3 elected officials who ran the recount testify in the committee hearings, they would know that the ballots were scrutinized thoroughly before and during the process of inserting them into the tabulator. This is just a brazen attempt to change the outcome of the election. This whole process has been a huge waste of time and tax payer dollars.

  • wendywilton

    So if there is a dispute about a ballot, and an appeal is made to the tri-party team, then the Democrat and Progressive can out-vote the Republican:
    “If that team of four members can’t agree on the voter’s intent, the ballot will go to Townsend and the two party caucus leaders.”
    Maida Townsend, previous VT Democratic Party Chair knows exactly what she is doing. Partisan politics at its worst. So disappointed in Speaker Johnson on this decision to continue with the recount.

    • Bob Orleck

      First of all the whole process is a slap in the face to the town clerks who do great work and nothing to date has shown they didn’t do that in this race. Who would you trust with the results if it were you running? Clerks or partisans?

      It is not hard for me to imagine that there are some Republicans who would expediently go along with the Democrats and Progressives for we are aware that there are many RINOs running loose in Vermont. For there to be agreement that include some Republicans on the three person committee led by Democrat Representative Govt Op ChairTownsend, a Progressive member and a Republican member and for that to give confidence to the electorate that the process is fair, is a joke. Layers of decisionmaking on voter intent will never satisfy the desire of the voter to have a fair and impartial election that has finality to it and allows life and government to proceed in an orderly way. What a sad state of affairs we have in Vermont. Are you suprised though?

  • Allan Wylie

    This whole recount effort is a travesty. The votes have been counted twice and certified by a judge. Rep. Townsend says she wants to assure voters that their votes count. The clear implication is that up until now votes in Orange-1 have not been accurately counted and town clerks and our judges just don’t do their jobs well enough for her. If that is the case, why should we trust any counting of ballots in any election using the current system?
    This recount indicates SHE doesn’t think our votes should count. Only the legislature can make decisions of this magnitude! The whole recount effort is based on the interpretation of some very small number of ballots and it is those precise ballots that will be interpreted by a THREE person panel, two of whom may very well not wish to see Rep. Frenier seated.
    This is pure partisan power politics and has nothing to do with the assurance of the validity of the previous two counting and the adjudication of an impartial judge. The legislature wants to count the ballots until it gets the number it wants.
    Having participated in a recount, I wonder as well why the legislature insists on the use of the tabulator. If the ballots are to be inspected so carefully prior to being put into the tabulator, why not just count them? This is typical legislative flummery! How many legislators, indeed, does it take to count a ballot?

  • Gail Graham

    I have several concerns about this “recount”-from the beginning-and attended the House session during the :debate” about it. Now-since the majority won that “debate”-I’m VERY concerned about the manner in which the majority has decided to carry out the legislative recount. I ask WHY are they not required to follow the rules and regulations of “regular” r

    • Gail Graham

      sorry about incomplete sentence above. Anyway-WHY are they not required to follow the rues and regulations of “regular” recounts? Since this is, apparently, going to take place, I would feel a LOT more comfortable if at least someone from elections at the SOS office would be present.

  • DebBucknam

    I find this very disturbing. First, the attorney general did not perform his statutory duty to conduct a fact investigation. Then the Government Operations Committee did not do a full fact investigation. The members did not ask the town clerks the questions about the challenger’s allegations concerning ballot irregularities–they just took the challenger’s allegations at face value. Then they did not interview the clerks that supervised the recount. This has not occurred in previous election contests. If they had done their job, and if the Attorney General had done his job, they would have discovered that there were only three questionable ballots, not enough to overturn the election. Now, the proposed House rules on the recount provide that one Dem and one Progressive and one Republican decide “contested” ballots. This is not an impartial committee. It is undisputed that the Dems and the Progressives both prefer the challenger over the winner of the election. If the proposed rules provided that two Republicans and one Democrat or Progressive decide contested ballots, would the House agree? Not on your life. They would say it wasn’t an impartial committee. So, the multiple errors in this election contest are compounded, calling into question whether the Orange-1 District election will be “free and without corruption.” . The House has a constitutional right to decide the elections and qualifications of its members, subject to Section 6 of the Constitution. Section 6 provides the House has “no power to add to, alter, abolish or infringe on any part of this Constitution.” The Constitution provides that elections be “free and without corruption.” The way this contest has been conducted by the House poses a real danger that House will violate the Constitutional provision requiring elections be “free and without corruption.”

    • Gail Graham

      Very well stated Deb. To say all of this is concerning is an understatement, and for MANY reasons. An additional concern for some of us is that some of our Reps. refuse to listen to reason, and will ” go with the decision of the Committee (Gov Ops)”! Therein lies a big part of the REAL issue, with which we are dealing!

      • DebBucknam

        In addition, Gail, if they had done things right, they wouldn’t be wasting taxpayer dollars on spinning out this process. But, they are so arrogant, they don’t care about spending taxpayer money on this costly waste of time. Republicans should be calling the majority to account. That is what opposition parties are supposed to do. It is disheartening that they don’t.

  • Chet Greenwood

    You can’t make this stuff up and it is a sure way to settle close races- for the Dems/Progs!
    Whenever there is a close race with the R the winner, all they have to do is initiate the “Townsend Tally”, this process by-passes the Attorney General, the judges and it has already approved by all the D’s and P’s in the House. Then the 3 member “impartial” committee has the authority to psychoanalyze each ballot and determine the voters intent! How can they lose?

  • David Austin

    If the Legislature devoted half the time it spends on finding new and creative ways to waste time and resources toward finding efficiencies and eliminating waste in state government, Vermont would be a lot better off.

  • Chet Greenwood

    This will be called the “Townsend Tally”.
    It will be used whenever a Republican wins by a handful of votes. It by-passes the judicial system, the Attorney General and has the blessing of all the D’s and P’s in the House. The 3 impartial committee members, (1-D, 1-P and 1-R) have the ability to psychoanalyze each ballot to determine what the voter was really thinking and they get to vote with the majority ruling. You can’t make this up!
    Sounds like a perfect setup unless, of course, you are a Republican!

  • Gary Dickinson

    Why not eliminate voting for representatives altogether and end the charade of fair elections in VT? The people will know for sure their will is irrelevant and you can stop wasting money on recounting until you can get the result you want.

  • Steve Baker

    Really, ground rules for a recount ?
    Isn’t the recount what many would consider settled science ? Several times one candidate came out with more votes than the other, now we need ground rules ,
    It’s not surprising that our legislature wants to waste time with this, it gives them cover for not doing their job

  • Mark Donka

    I hope Vermonters take notice of this waste of time that is happening in the State House. You sent these people to Montpelier. So what happens when the vote is complete with the same outcome? The candidate and the Legislator’s will owe the Town Clerks, the Judge and the people of Vt an apology.

  • Brooke Paige

    In Vermont Election Day will never be the same, the posted tallies will now be treated as a suggestion of the final outcome – subject to the whims of vagaries of the politicians, the courts, the meddling of the Attorney General and ultimately the partisan party hacks awaiting their turn to interpret the intent of individual voters from their exalted seats under the Golden Dome. Democracy seems to have taken an ill-advised turn off the main road onto a dusty dead-end trail !

  • FXFlinn

    If what Deb Bucknam says is true the recount will affirm the results of the election; I do not think the other 20 people in the room will permit the 3 folks designated to resolve the handful of questionable ballots to continually vote 2-1 to turn R votes into D votes, or, if that happens, the Dem caucus will revolt. If what Deb Bucknam says is not actually true, the results of this recount might be different. Having worked elections I am pretty sure Bucknam is right, but I could be wrong. In any case, based on the rules we are going to get a hand count of all ballots plus a tabulator count of all machine-readable ballots. Not sure why they are going to bother with the tabulator at all.