Local election officials work to keep up with mail-in ballot surge

Poll workers Tim Barritt, left, and Marta Taylor tabulate absentee ballots in South Burlington on Wednesday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

As absentee ballot requests in Vermont surpass 149,000, breaking all records, town clerks and local election officials across the state are scrambling to keep up with the surge and prepare to hold elections amid the pandemic.

In addition to the inordinate number of absentee ballot requests coming in, some town and city clerks are working to fill poll worker shortages as some election workers — many of whom are seniors — opt not to work amid the pandemic.

“We are scrambling to get these ballots out, and we’re scrambling to record them when they come in,” said South Burlington City Clerk Donna Kinville. “It’s a lot of work behind the scenes.”

In South Burlington, where more than 7,000 absentee ballot requests have been received so far, Kinville said election workers are hard to come by.

“It’s getting very, very hard to staff the polls,” Kinville said.

In a directive issued on July 20, Secretary of State Jim Condos granted Boards of Civil Authority the ability to appoint poll workers who are not residents of the town or registered voters, including 16- and 17-year-olds, breaking from past precedent. The Legislature vested Condos with the unilateral authority to change election procedures this year after he and Gov. Phil Scott struggled to come to an agreement on expanding mail-in voting.

Condos said his office heard concerns early on in the primary planning process about staffing the polls, but said that “things seem to have settled down some.” Nationwide, more than half of poll workers are above the age of 61, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

In Colchester, Town Clerk Julie Graeter said she is “looking towards new groups of volunteers” that she doesn’t normally reach out to to find workers for this year’s primaries.

Condos said his office will provide polling places with infection prevention kits that include masks and other personal protective equipment.

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“We’ve taken care of that side of it, and I think that may have allayed some of the fears of some people, he said, though he added that he would like to see more young people get involved to staff the polls.

In the directive, Condos also expanded the period that town clerks can begin processing — but not counting — returned absentee ballots to 30 days prior to the election, as opposed to one. Many town clerks are already bringing in volunteers to begin processing the ballots. 

Condos’ office mailed every registered voter a postcard earlier this month that could be returned to clerks as an absentee ballot request. 

Many clerks saw numerous postcards returned to their offices as undeliverable. Condos said the catch was “by design” so that his office could learn of voters who have died or moved, allowing it to clean up the voter checklist ahead of the general election.

The Secretary of State’s Office will mail every voter a ballot ahead of the November election, alleviating town clerks of the duty of mailing out absentee requests.

Graeter said that in Colchester, during the first week after postcards were sent out to voters, her office was handling up to 400 absentee ballot requests per day. 

Normally, she said, processing returned absentee ballots is doable in the one-day time frame. This year, though, she said the longer window will help with increased volume and a need for reduced person-to-person contact.

“This is not a new process,” she said. “It’s just a lot larger number than we’re used to.”

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Jasper Goodman

About Jasper

Jasper Goodman is a rising sophomore at Harvard University, where he is a news and sports reporter for the Harvard Crimson, the school's independent student daily newspaper. A native of Waterbury and a 2018 graduate of Harwood Union High School, Jasper previously spent five years as a sports correspondent for the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. For eight years, he made weekly appearances on WDEV Radio with hall-of-fame broadcaster Ken Squier. He also spent two summers as the radio play-by-play voice of the Vermont Mountaineers baseball team. In 2018, he was a summer journalism intern at The Hill newspaper in Washington, D.C.
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