Mind The Gap (Day): Vermont Clerks Seek a Break Before Election Day

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Election officials know that the run-up to Election Day can be chaotic and exhausting as all of the various pieces of the process are coming together – and in Vermont, local clerks are trying to get the state to give them a “gap day” on the Monday before so they can be ready. Unfortunately for them, the Secretary of State and the Legislature don’t seem to agree. VTDigger has more:

Town clerks vow they’ll keep fighting for a proposal they say will make preparing for elections easier and that opponents say could result in fewer people voting.

The clerks want a “gap day” on the Monday before elections where they would not be required to register voters or take in absentee ballots. They say they need that time to set up the polling stations and prepare paperwork, including the voter checklist.

Voters could then register and cast their ballot on the day of the election.

Opponents of a gap day, including Secretary of State Jim Condos, say about 7,300 people registered to vote statewide on the Monday before last November’s election. Clerks say that number may be inflated because they counted weekend registrations when they were booked on Monday.

An attempt to include a gap day failed on the Senate floor last week as part of an election reform bill that ultimately passed. That bill, H.512, was partly designed to avoid a repeat of what one lawmaker called the “debacle” connected with two recounts in House races last year.

It’s a tough call, forcing a choice between giving clerks a day to get ready and maintaining voter access:

“We’re frustrated,” said Karen Richard, the Colchester town clerk, who is chair of the Legislative Committee for the Vermont Municipal Clerks’ and Treasurers’ Association. She said clerks have felt overwhelmed with extra duties required by lawmakers, particularly same-day voter registration, which passed three years ago and went into effect for the November election.

“It’s all these new things and it’s 10 o’clock at night and you can’t see straight,” Richard said. The “gap day” is needed in larger communities more than small towns but was supported by 80 percent of the group’s members who returned surveys, she said.

Condos acknowledged town clerks have to work hard during the election season, but he opposed a gap day because he said it could mean fewer people vote.

“For me, it all comes down to the voters,” he said.

Richard said some town clerks are irritated at Condos for not being more supportive.

Sen. Jeanette White, chair of Senate Government Operations, said a majority of senators shared Condos’ view.

“Our concern was that every vote should count,” said White, D-Windham.

That said, the Legislature did step back on a proposal that would have added more duties to Election Day – but clerks are still growing frustrated at their lengthening to-do lists:

Lawmakers did, however, agree to drop one hot-button proposal that particularly irked the town and city clerks: a requirement that clerks send two people back to the town hall when the polls close at 7 p.m. to collect any last-minute absentee ballots. Instead, lawmakers will request that clerks leave a note directing voters to the nearest polling station if the polls are about to close, White said.

“It’s a balance and a tradeoff,” White said when asked about the clerks’ concerns that the Legislature was adding to their duties. While adding requirements such as reporting results to the secretary of state’s office on election night, White said, the Legislature has also tried to pass proposals like online registration to ease the burden on clerks.

In their statement, the clerks were not buying White’s argument.

The bill “does little to address our concerns about the proliferation of tasks clerks are required to perform in advance of, during, and following elections and actually adds additional duties to an already packed list,” the association said.

“Clerks are not complaining about the workload — we are devoted to our towns and residents, and consider elections one of the most sacred of the duties with which the voters have entrusted us,” the clerks continued. “The integrity of the election process is of paramount importance to us. Additional duties and reporting requirements have stretched our limited assets to the breaking point, and endanger the integrity and accuracy of elections.”

“They’re probably right,” White said of the additional duties clerks now have. “They work really, really hard.”

It’s a really tough tradeoff – my experience is that election officials want to (and will) do whatever they can to help voters cast a ballot, but at some point the challenge of making it all happen as time grows short seems greater and greater. A key question is would voters who register the day before Election Day do so earlier (or Election Day itself) were the “gap day” to be put in place, and how would that affect the workload? Here’s hoping that state and local officials can find a way to make the workload manageable in Vermont without disadvantaging voters.

Stay tuned …

 

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