The Deeper Dig: Counting ballots in a crisis

Kevin Oddy operating ballot tabulator
Kevin Oddy, chair of St. Johnsbury’s Board of Civil Authority, runs advance ballots through a tabulating machine during a processing session on Thursday, 12 days prior to Election Day. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

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On Thursday, seven people gathered in the St. Johnsbury town offices to kick off Election Day — 12 days before the polls will actually open.

Town Clerk Stacy Jewell welcomed the crew and reminded them that they were under oath. Then, she directed each person to begin opening and stacking the 1,700 ballots her office had already received.

Two major shifts have changed this year’s election procedure for local officials. First, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the state mailed ballots to every registered active voter in the state, encouraging Vermonters to vote in advance to keep crowds down at the polls. Second, the state is allowing local officials to process advance ballots — which would normally be kept sealed until Election Day — in the weeks leading up to Nov. 3.

Learn more about the candidates — and how to vote — in VTDigger’s 2020 Voter Guide.

Jewell hoped her team, made up of town officials, justices of the peace, and volunteers, could scan most of the ballots they’d received so far in just a few hours. But, she said, another rush was likely coming after the Oct. 24 mail-in deadline, and the 24-hour dropbox outside the town office was getting plenty of action. To keep things orderly on Election Day, they may need to organize another ballot-opening gathering next week.

Still, she said, the process has been manageable. And she hopes that members of the public who are anxious about the changes to this year’s election will see up close that it’s being handled properly.

“It’s all out there. There is nothing secret and there’s nothing hidden,” she said. “People can come and watch the process at any time.”

Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos has repeatedly emphasized the integrity of Vermont’s election system. But beyond Vermont, the presidential election could bring additional challenges. Experts are warning that the outcome of the presidential race may not be clear on election night — and that’s okay.

“A slow count is a good count,” said Garrett Graff, a Burlington-based journalist and cybersecurity expert with the Aspen Institute. “A slow vote, in most jurisdictions, simply means that they are accurately following the procedures that are in place for exactly this type of situation.”

Graff said although there are legitimate concerns — about the changes brought by Covid, or the president’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses — scattered reports of unusual activity at the polls are normal in any election year. Long lines and issues with voting machines are “things that look bad, but they don’t necessarily mean that the election is being stolen or that the election is illegitimate.”

**Podcast transcript**

This week: Nearly 200,000 Vermonters have already voted in the general election, after the state mailed ballots to every registered active voter for the first time ever. The shift to mail-in voting has some people concerned about the integrity of the results. But both election experts and local officials on the front lines say the proper safeguards are in place — and if you vote, your vote will be counted.

Answering machine: You are now being transferred to: town clerk…

On Wednesday, I called over to the town offices in St. Johnsbury to hear how their preparations were going. 

What do your days look like right now, two weeks ahead of Election Day?

Stacy Jewell: Well, we just collected taxes last Friday, so it’s a little crazy. [laughs]

This is Stacy Jewell, the town clerk. 

Stacy Jewell: So daily, as the ballots are coming in, we’re receiving them into the computer in a batch. And then at the end of the day, we’re printing the report and going through those ballots, to reconcile them every single day to make sure what we put in the computer is what is in the box or vice versa. 

Got it. So it’s just a lot of ballot handling. 

Stacy Jewell: It is, yes…

Stacy said they’re working out some kinks. Some people didn’t get their ballots in the mail — maybe they changed towns, or got purged from the voter checklist — and Stacy’s team is working those cases out. But she’s also just hearing this generally heightened level of concern from her constituents.

Stacy Jewell: I do feel that people are really on edge about this election, and that they’re getting really nervous that their ballots are not going to get counted, or they’re not going to be able to vote. And that’s just — it’s not the case. It’s truly not the case. They’re going to get issued a ballot, they may have to come the day of the election and vote, depending on when they’re requesting their ballots. So for them not to be…freaked out.

Where do you think that anxiety is coming from?

Stacy Jewell: I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s the news or the media, or — this is the first time Vermont has ever done an all mail-in election. There’s just a lot of things that are different between mailing the ballots and in Covid. And whether they come in person or they don’t come in person, it’s just something new and different.

What do you tell those people? If I come to you right now and say, ‘I’m nervous that my ballot is not getting through,’ what’s your answer?

Stacy Jewell: That they’re more than welcome to come watch the process. It’s all public information. It’s open to the public — they can come into the office at any time and look to see where their ballot is. They can be here the day we open them and process them through the machine. They can come watch the process the night of the election when we close the machines out and how all the ballots are sorted. 

It’s just all out there. 

Stacy Jewell: It’s all out there. There is nothing secret, and there’s nothing hidden. Everything – it’s all public information, and people can come and watch the process at any time.

I took Stacy up on this. The next day, she got a team of local officials and volunteers together to officially start the election, 12 days before Election Day.

Stacy Jewell: Did you sign in? I did put an oath on the sign-in sheet…

This crew was there to start tabulating the 1,700 ballots the town had already received. They started with an oath.

Stacy Jewell: So the oath reads on the sign-in sheet that: “I solemnly swear or affirm I will faithfully execute the office of assistant election official, where unto you have been duly appointed and there unto equal right and justice to all persons to the best of your abilities so help you God or under the pains and perjuries…

Everyone signed the oath, the first official piece of a long paper trail that will come out of this meeting. The second piece was this.

That sound is a tabulating machine, the kind you’ll see at most polling places in Vermont. Stacy explained to the group that it was printing what’s called a zero tape, basically a four foot long receipt, which shows that no ballots have been run through this machine yet. 

Stacy Jewell: So everything is going to come through as a zero. We’re gonna have people sign off on the bottom of this…

Stacy walked the whole group through the safeguards that will keep the machine from being tampered with.

Stacy Jewell: Everything is locked up and at the end of the day, everything is going to have tags like this on it, or zip ties on it…

And then it was time to start the actual work of slicing open ballot envelopes.

Stacy Jewell: Try to do your best to make sure there at the bottom that you don’t cut the ballot in half. Slice it open. I want you to take it out hand it to the person next to you like that, and then that person has to open it and flatten it out. 

This is all so that one person can run neat stacks of ballots through the tabulating machine. One of these ballot handlers was Kevin Oddy, the chair of the town’s board of civil authority.

Kevin Oddy: Well, I’m the chairman of the BCA. So I signed up for this two years ago. Been doing it for 25 years, probably. Believe in the election process. I believe that, you know, if you don’t vote, you don’t have a right to complain.

I asked Kevin how all this was going so far.

Kevin Oddy: The good part about this whole process this year is that they have decided that we can open these a little earlier. So we can get a jump on it. Normally, in the past, we’ve opened all of the absentee ballots on voting day. And that can make it pretty hectic when we’re doing that.

This gives you guys kind of a head start.

Kevin Oddy: This gives us a head start. And I don’t know how many ballots we’ve already received. But it’s a lot.

As Kevin opened envelopes, Sue Haney stacked the ballots. She had heard about the process and volunteered to help.

Sue Haney: I’m a farmer, and I got a break. I feel it’s my civic duty. 

Oftentimes people talk about voting as a civic duty, but this seems like a step beyond. Why take that extra step?

Sue Haney: Well, think about it, you know, with everybody mailing in their votes, I think they need the help. And I like to help when I can, but I normally never get off my farm. So I guess I’m on vacation for a couple of hours. Maybe I think this is a vacation. [laughs]

I heard something similar from Stephanie Churchill. She’s a justice of the peace, but she also just wants to make sure people’s votes get counted.

Stephanie Churchill: It’s part of my job, but it’s also — I just want to be helpful to the town and make this election process go as smoothly as we can.

Stephanie said she’s heard the skepticism about this year’s election, mostly from outside Vermont, and namely from President Donald Trump, who said that mail-in voting will lead to fraud. Not only is there no evidence of that, but Stephanie pointed out that this exact process — run by local people, with oaths and receipts and security systems — this is actually a pretty solid system.

Stephanie Churchill: For what it’s worth, I have total faith in this election process. And I know the people who are working on ballots, and I don’t question their integrity. I’ve been doing this a long time. Stacy runs a tight ship.

So there’s faith that local administrators will do their jobs. The flip side is that what’s happening in St. J might look different in another town, or in another state. And because — as you might have heard — this is a presidential election year, even if everything goes great in Vermont, things could still get complicated in tallying up the presidential race.

Garrett Graff: The biggest thing is that Americans shouldn’t expect to see an election result on election night itself.

Garrett Graff is a journalist based in Burlington. He’s also a cybersecurity expert with the Aspen Institute, where he’s been looking at the range of possibilities for this year’s election.

Garrett Graff: We have gotten used to knowing who the victor is going to be by midnight, 1 a.m. on election night on the East Coast, and that that’s quite possibly not going to be the case. And in fact, there are going to be a number of states, including three of the big battlegrounds — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — that are going to be counting, slowly, absentee ballots, that might not be reporting results until Wednesday, Thursday or even Friday.

What Garrett argues, though, is that this is actually a positive thing. It means the system is working.

Garrett Graff: The first and the biggest thing that people need to keep in mind is that a slow count is a good count. That there is no reason, necessarily, to believe nefarious purposes or malfeasance in jurisdictions that are taking a while to count votes on election night. That it is, in fact, quite the opposite: that a slow vote in most jurisdictions means simply that they are accurately following the procedures that are in place for exactly this type of situation. And that the delay, what we think of as late results, is not actually late, according to the official procedures. You know, just because a jurisdiction isn’t reporting results until Wednesday or Thursday or even later, doesn’t mean that this is some old Chicago-style vote packing plot to throw in a bunch of dead people’s votes. This is election officials working through, in a methodical manner, exactly the processes designed for something like that. 

Similarly, it’s really important to make sure that you understand the context of numbers that you’re listening to: that there are all sorts of normal problems that unfold in the course of an election. There are 220,000 individual polling places. So even if 99.9% of America’s polling places go absolutely smoothly, you’re still going to be talking about hundreds of reports of power outages, of poll workers who overslept, of technology that doesn’t work, long lines — things that look bad, but that don’t necessarily mean that the election is being stolen or that the election is illegitimate.

Are there things that people should be concerned about? Are there any legitimate issues that could crop up on this Election Day because things are so different this year than they’ve been in past cycles?

Garrett Graff: Yeah, I think that there are all manner of reasons to be actually concerned about this election. We’re already seeing reports of foreign and domestic disinformation spreading around the election. The president is a uniquely challenging individual in a moment of the exercise of democracy like this, as he is simultaneously asking supporters to show up and self monitor at the polls, as well as saying that he may not accept the legitimacy of a loss. And that’s really troubling. 

I think one of the biggest challenges coming into this election is that the incumbent president is uniquely disinclined to respect the democratic norms of a peaceful transition of power in the event of a loss: he has refused to commit to that, the vice president has refused to commit to that. And it’s led to some really bonkers statements by people like the U.S. military, saying that they don’t intend to get involved in election disputes. Which, you know, obviously not. Why would you even need to say that? But this year, everyone is really on edge about what could happen, particularly in a moment of uncertainty in between Election Day and when a winner becomes clear.

I asked Garrett to lay out the different scenarios here. He said the outcome with the most uncertainty could go well beyond election night, and that we’d all be learning what he called the “Schoolhouse Rock” version of election procedures.

Garrett Graff: The unofficial tallies that the media gathers on election night are not determinative, they’re not necessarily complete. They are not the official results. Those are gathered by secretaries of state and election officials and unfold in a legally prescribed process at the presidential level that leads to the meeting of the Electoral College, who officially vote for the president on December 14 this year. And then those Electoral College votes are actually turned over to Congress on January 6 to be certified. And it’s only that congressional certification that officially creates a president-elect. 

So you might very well see in a close election where there are challenges in court over the eligibility of certain classes of ballots or certain types of ballots that officials stretch that vote counting out into November or even December. And that some states may not be final until very close to the end of the year. 

From there, you end up in a weird case of sort of more outlandish, you know, doomsday scenarios, of what happens if the election results don’t get certified, that there is no majority in the Electoral College, and so on and so forth, that could end up in a worst case scenario tossing this election to Congress on January 6, for the House of Representatives to choose the president.

So that’s one extreme version of how this can play out, of dragging on into December. What’s at the other end of the spectrum. What’s the other way that this could go?

Garrett Graff: It depends a lot on the margin of victory nationally. I think one of the oddities of this year is that the Trump campaign has effectively never made a case that it believes it will win the majority of the popular vote — that the scenarios under which Donald Trump would win are much more narrow Electoral College victories, like what led him to the presidency in 2016, where Hillary Clinton beat him by 3 million votes in the popular vote, and Donald Trump still squeaked out the presidency in the Electoral College. So in the event of a Donald Trump victory, we are unlikely to know that on election night, just based on polls and expectations for how this election is going to unfold. 

On the other end of that spectrum, we might have a very good sense that Joe Biden will be victorious on election night itself. Two early bellwether states, Florida and North Carolina, are likely to report quickly on election night itself. North Carolina, for instance, is not that many electoral votes overall. But it would represent an important trend about how the rest of the election is going to unfold nationwide, and how other swing states might end up going. So you might actually have a sense relatively early by, say, midnight on Tuesday, if Joe Biden is going to win easily enough to sort of shut down any controversy around the outcome of how individual votes and individual states actually go. Otherwise, we are probably looking at an election where we’re still waiting around Thursday, Friday, Saturday, maybe even past Saturday for how the election actually unfolds. 

Got it. I feel like I should ask you, given what you’ve talked about here — the way the pandemic has upended this, the way that the President seems disinclined to go by democratic norms here — what is not different this year? What’s fundamentally unchanged about people’s ability to cast a ballot in this election?

Garrett Graff: One actually important and optimistic observation in this is that, in many ways, the U.S. electoral system is the best prepared and most resilient and most secure it ever has been in this election — that if there was ever a moment for the election system to be uniquely challenged, it is good that it is 2020. Because after the Russian attack on the 2016 campaign, there has been an enormous effort by local state and federal officials at all levels, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into more resilient voting technologies, more secure systems, and election officials coming into this year were already prepared for an unprecedented threat and unprecedented complexity. 

There’s always more that could be done — you know, it would have been great if we’d spent billions of dollars on this and not just hundreds of millions of dollars on it. But the U.S. electoral system writ large is resilient, and it is decentralized. The strength and the weakness of the system in a moment like this is that it’s all done at the local and state level. And so there are a lot of different systems and there’s a lot of resiliency that would allow problems to unfold in one jurisdiction without necessarily affecting any neighboring jurisdictions.

And the end result of that is, more ballots should be counted more accurately.

Garrett Graff: More ballots will be counted more accurately, and potentially more securely as well.

Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos has repeatedly stressed the security of our state’s election systems in recent weeks. He’s also said that there’s no evidence that mail in voting leads to voter fraud. Condos says the real voter fraud is the attempt to roll back voting rights around the country.

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Mike Dougherty

About Mike

Mike Dougherty is VTDigger’s digital editor. He is a DC-area native and studied journalism and music at New York University. Prior to joining VTDigger, Mike spent two years as a program coordinator for the Vermont Humanities Council. Before moving to Vermont in 2015, he spent seven years managing recording operations for the oral history nonprofit StoryCorps, assisted Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, and contributed to the Brooklyn-based alt-weekly L Magazine.

Email: [email protected]

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