Vermont voters showed up at the polls in historic numbers last week, shattering the record for turnout in statewide primary set four years ago.

Numbers still aren’t final a week after the vote, but the Vermont Secretary of State’s office says 169,000 Vermonters voted Tuesday, Aug. 11. That’s roughly 50,000 more votes than were cast in 2016, the previous high water mark for voter turnout in an August primary.

Local vote totals are just as impressive. Every town in Lamoille County recorded voter turnout of at least 25 percent, with many towns setting voter-turnout records and several seeing more than a third of their voters cast a ballot.

“Record turnout for a primary!” Morristown Town Clerk Sara Haskins said Tuesday night, with voter turnout of 38 percent.

“If we get 25 percent for a primary, that’s amazing,” she said.

All told, 6,455 people voted across Lamoille County’s 10 towns, or 33 percent of the roughly 19,625 voters in the county. Elmore had the highest turnout, with 323 of its 746 voters — 43 percent — doing their civic duty.

“It was a hot, humid, miserable day but we had pretty good voter turnout,” Belvidere Town Clerk Cathy Mander-Adams said. Even a late-night power outage in Belvidere couldn’t dampen her mood. With no lights, phone or internet, Mander-Adams and her election staff simply finished filling out their summary sheets — they’d already counted the results — by the light of their emergency exit signs and went home, sending the official results to the Secretary of State the next morning when the power came back on.

“We were just really happy that everything worked well,” Hyde Park Town Clerk Kim Moulton said. Absentee votes were returned en masse, in-person polling was set up to allow for safe social distancing and “all voters showed up with facial coverings of some sort.”

The 2020 primary election wasn’t just historic because so many people voted; it was also the first where such an emphasis was placed on early and absentee voting. All voters were encouraged to vote absentee who could, mailing back or dropping off their ballots before the primary in order to avoid the polls and large crowds amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The concerns about early and mail-in voting proved unfounded as Vermonters voted early and had those votes count in record numbers.

In Lamoille County, 4,533 votes were cast using absentee ballots, roughly 70 percent of all the votes cast in the primary.

“We were excited by the turnout; it will be interesting to see how many people choose to vote by mail in the future, beyond this pandemic,” Cambridge Town Clerk Schilling said.

History by the numbers

While official election results still had not been finalized by the Vermont Secretary of State a week out from voting, it was clear the next day that the 2020 primary shattered statewide records for turnout.

The Democratic primary accounted for much of the record-breaking turnout, as almost 110,000 people voted. There were over 58,000 votes in the Republican primary and just under 1,000 in the Progressive primary.

Vermonters set a new record just four years ago in the 2016 primary. That year just under 120,000 people voted in August; breaking the previous record set in 2000 when nearly 118,000 people voted.

At the local level, eight of the ten towns in Lamoille County had voter turnout over 30 percent.

Elmore’s 43-percent turnout included 227 absentee votes. Morristown had the next highest number; 1,506 total votes cast for a 38-percent showing.

Percentages were similar across the rest of the county: 36 percent in Hyde Park, 33 percent in Waterville, 32 percent in Wolcott, 31 percent in both Stowe and Belvidere, and 30 percent in Cambridge.

Only two towns, Eden and Johnson, saw voter numbers dip below 30 percent; in Johnson 29 percent of voters voted, while Eden posted 25 percent.

Primary voting in August seems to be on an upswing. Over the last 20 years, only two other primaries, in 2010 and 2018, drew more than 100,000 voters to the polls. Low points came in 2008 and 2014, when under 40,000 people voted. Only 41,000 voted in 2004, just over 50,000 in 2002, 54,000 in 2012 and 67,000 in 2006.

Turnout for primaries can be unpredictable, said Haskins, Morristown’s town clerk. “In 2016 we had 37 percent. In 2014 it was 7 percent. In 2012 it was 9 percent,” she said.

Locally, the difference between 2020 and some other primaries in the last 20 years was even more stark.

“Usually, we only have between 65 and 150 show up,” for a primary election, Moulton said. This year, 808 Hyde Park voters voted.

Last week’s primary even compares favorably to some recent general elections, which typically feature at least twice as many votes. The nearly 170,000 people who voted last week is only 26,000 less than the roughly 196,000 who voted in the 2014 November general election. Other recent general elections featured higher turnout; roughly 278,000 votes in 2018, 301,000 in 2012 and 320,000 in 2016.

Many town clerks think the record-setting turnout last week is a harbinger of things to come in November.

“For a general election, it’s never less than 50 percent turnout and its usually over 60 percent, close to 65 or 75 percent,” Haskins said.

A hotly contested presidential race, several interesting statewide races and a number of contested local races, combined with plans to send out an absentee ballot to every voter in Vermont, should make for extremely high turnout — likely some new record-breaking numbers, some clerks think.

Voting absentee

The sheer volume of absentee votes stunned some town clerks.

Voters in Morristown returned the most absentee votes with 1,037. That was more than four times the number in the 2016 primary — a mere 245. The 2020 primary even topped the number of absentee ballots counted in the 2016 presidential general election; that year saw 975, which had been the record for absentee ballots in Morristown.

Stowe also nearly cracked the 1,000-vote mark with 991 absentee ballots. There were some concerns leading up to the primary that ballots returned through the mail would reach town clerks too late. That hasn’t been been a problem in most towns, but a handful arrived late in Stowe.

“Eight to 10 since Tuesday,” Stowe Town Clerk Lisa Walker said last Friday.

In every town in the county, at least half the total votes came from absentee voters.

Many of the fears about widespread problems with absentee voting failed to materialize. While each town had a handful of unusable ballots — they’re called defective now, not spoiled — the numbers mirrored a typical election when more people vote in person.

“It was less than the last election we had,” Moulton said. Hyde Park had a total of 20 defective ballots. One pitfall of absentee voting is that if someone voting in person fouls up their ballot and the machine won’t read it, Moulton and her election staff can walk the voter through the process again, even giving them a new ballot.

But that’s not possible with mail-in voting, so a defective ballot stays defective.

In Eden, all 10 of the defective ballots went uncounted because people didn’t sign the envelope containing their voted ballot before mailing or dropping it off.

The signature serves as an affidavit, the voter’s guarantee that what’s inside the ballot is their vote. “If you don’t sign it, we can’t confirm that that voter actually voted,” Haskins said.

Other small towns saw similar numbers of defective ballots; there were 19 in Wolcott, nine in Elmore and four in Waterville. Stowe had more defective ballots with 38. Johnson had 31.

“Half were unsigned,” Johnson Town Clerk Rosemary Audibert said. The majority of the other half were unusable because people had tried to vote in more than one primary and returned both those ballots, rendering both uncountable.

Many town clerks said they tried to go above and beyond to ensure voters had proper instructions for absentee ballots.

“We provided an instruction sheet, on colored paper, with every ballot. We really did our best,” Schilling said.

In the end, 18 ballots were defective in Cambridge; 15 of those weren’t signed properly, despite those special instructions.

Morristown ended up with 83 defective votes, which is higher than normal, Haskins said, partly because people returned ballots in the wrong envelopes. She believes the problem will take care of itself by November when there’s only one ballot, not three.

“My guess is there will be less unusable ballots in November,” Haskins said.

“It should take care of itself, but if you don’t sign the envelope it’s defective as well,” Stowe Town Clerk Lisa Walker agreed.

With interest in voting going up, coupled with absentee ballots being mailed out to every voter, Haskins is trying to determine how many poll workers to have on hand in November.

“We’re not sure if that will bring less people to the polling place. Will they just mail them in? Or will people still want to come to a polling place and vote in person?” she said.

“We’re expecting a very big turnout in November, especially with ballots automatically being mailed out,” Schilling said.

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