Voters within the Lamoille County school districts come from a variety of towns. Because of that, one town isn’t supposed to know how the other towns voted.
In normal years, it’s pretty easy to maintain anonymity — just truck the ballots from all the towns to a central location and dump them out and mix them together like bingo balls.
Commingling of people or ballots is anathema to public safety in a pandemic, though.
Lisa Walker is clerk for both the town of Stowe and the Lamoille South school district — consisting of Elmore, Morristown and Stowe.
Walker said temporary election laws passed by the Vermont Legislature say if a school district’s bylaws necessitate the commingling of ballots, districts can instead have their town clerks read towns’ results to the district clerk, who sends it off to the secretary of state’s office — and destroy the tabulator ticker tape.
Gov. Phil Scott enacted H.48, which authorizes “alternative procedures” for annual meetings, on Jan. 19, just a couple of weeks into the session. The law allowed some towns to push back their annual meetings to late spring, and set up temporary voting rules meant to avoid contact among voting officials, even as towns and school districts worked together on school-related votes.
“It is the intent of the General Assembly that municipal officials, including boards of civil authority and municipal clerks, shall cooperate with and assist school districts and other incorporated districts with the administration of annual district meetings and budget votes,” the law reads.
Walker said she and other town clerks have enough work on their daily to-do lists that she doesn’t have time to dwell on other towns’ votes, and she didn’t share those results with anyone other than the state.
“Honestly, we just have to move on and forget about it,” Walker said a few days after Town Meeting Day. “I couldn’t tell you right now how each town voted. And I wouldn’t be able to find the answer, which is fine by me.”
But that hasn’t stopped some people from trying to get town-by-town votes from the school districts.
In an email exchange last month between Stowe resident John Pelletier and the Lamoille South school board and superintendent Tracy Wrend, Pelletier said the school board’s decision to keep town-by-town vote totals secret continues the district’s “practice of transparency reduction.”
Pelletier, a lawyer, said he doesn’t even think the voting process is legal, comparing it to hiding town voting data in gubernatorial elections and showing the totals only.
“I am disappointed by your decision to hide data from the public,” Pelletier wrote in his Feb. 11 email to school officials. “Democracies require trust. Trust requires transparency of the voting process. Hiding readily available data is not transparent.”
Dave Whitcomb, an Eden resident and long-time chair of the Lamoille North school board, said he too was disappointed in not being able to get school vote totals from Belvidere, Cambridge, Eden, Hyde Park, Johnson and Waterville.
Whitcomb bristled at the idea that, because of the pandemic, a select few people — namely, the clerks — are able to know the vote totals, but not the general public. He said it’s governmental overreach, and posits that town clerks and their staffs, boards of civil authority and other election workers all had a chance to see the town vote totals, and so should everybody.
“In my opinion, that makes it a public document, and I’m sick of people hiding behind this,” he said.
School boards voted shortly after H.48 was passed to keep town vote totals hidden, as their incorporating bylaws allow. These “articles of agreement” were established when the unified districts were formed.
Walker said she had one person — aside from the newspaper — ask about town-by-town totals but that it is out of her hands now.
She wouldn’t be able to pull the information now if she tried.
“Since the tally is sealed in an election bag, they might need a court order to open the bag,” she said.