Two town clerks involved in an upcoming recount for the Chittenden Senate primary election held earlier this month say there’s no way to check the signatures of the envelopes that delivered absentee ballots.
The recount, which is expected to begin Wednesday, will be conducted primarily by the County Clerk’s office.
June Heston, of Richmond, is a self-described moderate Democrat who came within 45 votes of unseating incumbent Progressive-Democrat Sen. Chris Pearson. Due to the close margin, she was able to file for a recount of the ballots.
“I think that is a very tight margin, and based on the fact that it was such a large turnout, I thought that everyone wants to be confident in the results,” Heston told True North.
Chittenden County Clerk Anne Williams will be overseeing the recount process.
“[To perform the recount], every ballot from every town is delivered, all those ballot bags have to be reopened, and we need to recount the Democratic ballots,” Williams said.
Williams said some ballots are “spoiled,” meaning they weren’t filled out correctly and are disqualified from being counted in the election. For example, voting for more candidates than is allowed on the form will spoil a ballot.
She said each ballot will be examined to determine voter intent, for instance, when a voter has circled a candidate’s name instead of filling in the proper boxes. Such ballots count toward the election.
One review that does not occur in a recount is an examination of envelope signatures, to ensure that they match the voter’s signature. With mail-in voting, voters must sign their names on an outer envelop affirming their identity.
South Burlington City Clerk Donna Kinville told True North that even had there been a request to examine the signatures, there is no way to check them.
“When they went with these computerized systems we don’t have any signatures to check anymore,” she said. “We don’t know what John Smith’s signature looks like. We used to be able to check because we had a lot more of the applications that people fill out by hand and would have to sign, but those count for 1 or 2 percent of what we receive now.”
Kinville said the vast majority of people these days either apply online or at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Even if a signature was fraudulent, it would be impossible to know, since ballots sent by mail are separated from their signed outer envelopes on election night, and there is no way to reunite them.
“We wouldn’t be able to pull it out anyways because we have no idea what that person voted,” Kinville said.
During a recount, ballots are run through the tabulator machines again. The machines are always locked in a vault when not in use, and they use memory cards to record the tallies. She said the memory card is something to be mindful of.
“We put [the cards] into the machine, [and] it’s not connected to the Internet, it’s not connected anything,” Kinville said. “It’s strictly what is on that card and what it reads. Now if I wanted to play devil’s advocate, someone could tamper with the cards prior to leaving the facility. But we haven’t found anything and when we have had to do recounts on some of our local issues, we’ve found them to be highly accurate.”
Kinville said clerks have been strained this election due to COVID-related guidelines, and so there may be inexperienced election workers brought in to help conduct the recount.
“So it has … the clerks working major overtime to get this election pulled off,” she said. ” … We’re trying to find election workers because most of the election workers that we have are a vulnerable age group, so we had to bring in a lot of new people that were not familiar with the election process.”
For purposes of transparency, each candidate will choose a team of volunteers to oversee the recount. Pearson took to Twitter to request a team of helpers.
Anyone in #ChittCo want to learn about the recount process and help me out? We need to submit names of volunteers by noon today. Recount starts Weds. DM me name & number if you can help for a half day or more. #vtpoli #btv
— Christopher Pearson (@SenatorCP) August 21, 2020
Richmond Town clerk Linda Parent is another election official who says there’s no way to know who’s signing the envelopes that go with absentee ballots.
“We don’t know what people’s signatures look like,” she said. “You know, some of them are quite legible and some of them are just scribbles.”
She said it’s up to the voter to vote by mail correctly.
“People have to follow the directions on how to vote by mail, and if they followed all those directions and put their name on it and signed the envelope, then we process it,” she said.
Heston said her supporters are encouraging her to fight on.
“I believe I owe it to my supporters who are encouraging me with such a tight margin to go for the recount,” she said. ” … I think everyone wants to feel confident that the results are what we’re showing.”