“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.
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.”