A decision by House lawmakers to conduct a second recount in a close House race in Orange County has drawn condemnation from Republicans in Montpelier and criticism from town clerks across the state.
On Wednesday night, House lawmakers approved a resolution to conduct a recount in a race between Republican Robert Frenier and Progressive Susan Hatch Davis.
Frenier won the first count by eight votes, and prevailed in a recount by seven votes. A superior court judge rejected Davis’ request for a second recount. But South Burlington Rep. Maida Townsend, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Committee on Government Operations, says the House should invoke its constitutional authority to force another ballot count.
“Because the fundamental issue here is accuracy,” Townsend says.
But while Democrats insist the recount will uphold the integrity of the electoral process, House Republicans say it will undermine it.
“This body is now moving into Washington-style politics to resolve something that’s been resolved by the clerks and the elections officials and the courts,” says House Minority Leader Don Turner.
A panel of 23 lawmakers will conduct the recount process. Though 11 Republicans will sit on that panel, Turner says he thinks Democrats will try to manipulate the recount in ways that deliver a positive outcome for Davis — and oust Frenier, who was sworn into the seat in early January.
“That’s my concern. I’m not speaking for the caucus, but that’s my concern,” Turner says. “We want to assure Vermonters that when they go to vote, their vote will be counted, and it won’t matter who’s in the majority of this body to recount them.”
Townsend says the desire to ensure that all votes will be counted is precisely the reason a recount is warranted.
“Differing conclusions [about the need for another recount] in no way equate to differing integrity,” Townsend says.
Townsend says the “lynchpin” behind the decision to move forward with the second recount was the outcome of a second recount in a separate race from 2016. In that race, between Republican David Ainsworth and Democrat Sarah Buxton, elections officials inspected the ballots visually in the second recount, prior to running them through the tabulator.
“The key insight from the second machine recount in that race was that there are some types of markings – incomplete markings, smudgings and the like – markings which the machines simply do not read as votes,” Townsend says. “It was not predicted, nor was it expected, but the process they used in the final recount found eight votes that had been missed in the first machine count.”
The recount resulted in a victory for Ainsworth, the Republican.
“It was this adjusted process which gave all concerned confidence in the accuracy of the count,” Townsend says. “We want to ensure that same level of advocacy, that same level of confidence.”
Republican lawmakers reject Townsend’s argument, and say final authority over elections should rest with local town clerks and the courts, not a political body in the Legislature. Barre Town Rep. Robert LaClair, a Republican, says the clerks from the six towns in the Orange county district in question conducted a unimpeachable recount the first time around.
“These town clerks, there’s six of them, they have over 65 years of combined experience being town clerks,” LaClair says. “And we’ve got [lawmakers] who are going to take a crash course and learn to be an election official in 65 minutes? I don’t think that’s the right way to go.”
Town clerks have also registered concern.
In a statement this week on behalf of the Vermont Municipal Clerks’ and Treasurers’ Association, Karen Richard, the town clerk in Colchester, said that “there were no gross discrepancies and no procedural errors that affected the results of the election.”
She said the decision by lawmakers to take the recount into their own hands “will cast doubt on the integrity of elections in the future.”
“This recount will set precedence for all close races and essentially make the General Assembly have the overarching authority of all close elections,” Richard said.