A hard fought, close election for the American presidency — conducted during a global pandemic — has left those who oversee elections with questions they do not usually confront. The Shelburne Board of Civil Authority grappled with three of those questions last week.
At the board’s meeting on Sept. 21, Town Clerk Diana Vachon said she had received an email request to register to vote from a man whose address is a Shelburne Road hotel.
The man reported that he used to live in Arizona, has changed his name, has a post office box in Montpelier and a bank account in Barre.
“It seemed a little odd,” Vachon told the board.
This election season has seen an increase in allegations, including from President Donald Trump, that mail-in ballots open the door for widespread ballot fraud. After Vachon explained the recent voter registration request, several members wondered aloud if the request was legitimate and what they should do about it.
Members asked if there was a way to check the individual’s Arizona residence and whether he is a U.S. citizen. Some voiced concerns about this being a case of fraud.
“I don’t want to sound conspiratorial, but it sounds like someone trying to show he can get ballots in multiple places,” board member David Webster said.
“I’m hung up on the fact of the bank account in another town and another address,” member Cate Cross commented.
“The consequences of this being true are huge,” Rowland said, referring to the possibility that the man’s request could be an instance of voter fraud. He suggested someone from the town make a “house call” on the man to check on his request.
Board Chairman Tom Little appeared to agree, saying, “The fact that we have three different addresses is sufficient to inquire.”
After several minutes, two other board members, Lee Suskin and Mary Kehoe spoke up.
“Do we require other [potential voters] to prove citizenship?” Suskin asked. “My fear is we are treating this differently because of his previous name.” The man had changed his name from one that appeared to be of Middle Eastern origin.
Suskin and Kehoe pointed out that the board is required to treat all requests to register to vote in the same way.
“This person should take the oath and be registered” like any other voter, Kehoe said. “If he has done everything that anyone asking to register must do, then we’re done.”
With that, the board decided to allow him to request an absentee ballot in Shelburne, as long as he has taken the voter’s oath.
“I think we are all reacting to the strange times in which we live,” Kehoe added.
Town Clerk Vachon brought two other concerns to the board, both triggered by an expected deluge of mail-in ballots.
Nearly 90 percent of Shelburne’s ballots in the Aug. 11 primary were cast by mail. There are 6,573 registered voters in Shelburne, and Vachon said she expects many of them will vote by mail in the general election, too.
Vachon asked board members whether it would be possible to count write-in votes on the mail-in ballots in advance of the election. Recording the names of write-in candidates is a time-consuming chore that can keep poll workers laboring late on election day and getting it done early would be helpful, board members agreed.
Trouble is, while state rules allow poll workers to open mail-in ballots and run them through the tabulating machine before election day, they may not let the machine actually tabulate the ballots until the polls close on Nov. 3.
Board members suggested Vachon ask the secretary of state’s office for guidance. Later last week she reported that the response: “it is not permitted to tally the write-in votes or do any other vote counting prior to the close of the polls on Election Day.”
In the meeting’s final action, Vachon asked for help filling the 60 slots for volunteers to help her process the hundreds of expected mail-in ballots. They’ll be opened and handled on four Thursdays in October and on Nov. 2.
Two justices of the peace from two separate parties are required to be in attendance while ballots are being handled.
Later last week, Vachon reminded Shelburne residents to call the town clerk’s office if they do not receive a mail-in ballot by Oct. 7. Ballots may be mailed back or dropped in collection boxes at the town clerk’s office, Shelburne police dispatch or a secure drop-box to be installed outside the town office building.