Southwestern town clerks report smooth new process, high voter turnout

Aug 11 2020, 6:21 PM

Despite altered setups and polling location changes due to Covid-19, clerks in several southwestern Vermont towns have reported high numbers of returned absentee ballots and higher than expected numbers of in-person voters Tuesday afternoon. 

In Manchester, town clerk Anita Sheldon helped orchestrate drive-through voting in the Dana L. Thompson Memorial Park. Masked volunteers stationed at a series of tents guided voters to check in, pick up their ballots, park and vote, then slip the upside-down ballots into a machine manned by volunteer Martha Heilemann. 

Heilemann said she’s heard positive feedback from almost all voters. “It’s amazing,” she said. “It’s not inconvenient — we didn’t know what to expect.”

Sheldon credited postal workers and said local post offices have extended their hours and given out their personal phone numbers to accommodate town officials.  

Streiber and Sheldon have been preparing for the primary since March, and called the drive-through a “dry run” for November. 

Sheldon said, out of 1,315 requested absentee ballots, 960 were returned as of Monday. That number is higher than the total number of voters Manchester saw in 2016 or 2018. By 2 p.m. on Tuesday, a total of 1,118 voters had turned in ballots out of 3,985 registered voters. 

Robin Wilcox, town clerk in Arlington, reported a similarly high voter turnout, which she found somewhat unusual. “Normally, it’s a very small election,” she said. “It’s one of the smallest elections we have, the August primary. Usually people are vacationing, or it’s not as much interest.” 

Wilcox credits the postcards sent by the state that allowed residents to request absentee ballots. 

Arlington normally sets up its polling booths at the local high school, but with the school closed, officials moved the polling location to the American Legion near the center of town. With three booths set up inside, officials set up one-way foot traffic, sanitized each pen after it was used, and required voters to socially distance. 

Similar procedures were set up at Sunderland’s town offices — and town clerk Rose Keough reported a similarly high voter turnout. She said 192 residents voted in the 2018 primary, and she issued 236 absentee ballots this year. 

Up the hill, in the tiny town of Sandgate, which is home to 310 registered voters, town clerk Sandy Reidy reported that 14 voters had come to vote in-person by early afternoon, and about half of registered voters requested absentee ballots.

—Emma Cotton