School Board Member Says City Decision 'Disenfranchises' Absentee Voters

May 16, 2014

In Burlington’s failed school budget vote back on Town Meeting Day, more than 1,300 Queen City residents voted by absentee ballot. But if they want to vote remotely again, they’ll have to request another ballot. And the decision by city officials not to automatically send re-vote ballots to people who asked for them the first time around has rankled at least one school board member.

“What I don’t understand is why we wouldn’t do something that’s going to enhance voter turnout?” says Scot Shumski, who represents Ward 4 on the Burlington School Board. “Why would we want to disenfranchise voters?”

Shumski is hoping for a ‘no’ vote on the June 3 re-vote, where voters, due to the discovery of accounting errors that led to the resignation this week of the superintendent of Burlington schools, will be asked to approve a higher budget than the one they turned down March 4.

Shumski says Burlington ought to follow the lead of municipalities like Barre City, Jericho, Underhill and Richmond, all of which opted to automatically send re-vote ballots to the list of residents who requested them for the first budget vote.

“There are going to be a lot of people who don’t know this vote is even happening on June 3,” Shumski says. “They know to request a ballot for Town Meeting Day, because it’s a tradition that happens every year. But there just isn’t that kind of awareness for this re-vote.”

But Burlington City Attorney Eileen Blackwood says the law is clear: residents wishing to vote by absentee ballot must request a new ballot for each election. And the budget re-vote June 3, Blackwood says, is a separate and distinct election from the one that occurred March 4.

“It is not a reconsideration of the same question,” Blackwood says. “It’s a different number, a different background behind it. Voters are being asked to do something different from what they were being asked before.”

Will Senning, director of elections at the Secretary of State’s office, says that when it comes to budget re-votes, “the law is unclear.” With reconsiderations of the same vote, Senning says it’s “best practice” for elections clerks to send absentee ballots for the re-vote to anyone who requested one for the original.

But issues like the one facing Burlington, Senning says, “to me is slightly more of a gray area.” And when asked for guidance, Senning says he leaves it to the discretion of local officials.

“I advise them to consult with their attorneys and really put it in their hands” Senning says. “It comes down to whether you consider it the same election.”

Barre City Clerk Carol Dawes says her office, after the failed school budget vote on Town Meeting Day, automatically sent re-vote ballots to anyone who had asked for one for the first time around. Dawes says that’s been custom in Barre City, ever since Senning’s predecessor recommended it six years ago as the safest legal course of action.

“She said that a budget re-vote is essentially a continuation of the original election, and therefore those people are entitled to automatically be sent a new ballot,” Dawes says. “And so that’s been our process ever since.”

Dawes says that if the original ballot went to an address in Florida or Arizona or California, then her office calls the “snowbirds” to find out whether they’ve returned to the state and, if so, if they still want to vote by absentee.

Otherwise, she says it’s a streamlined process that saves time, since all the ballots can go out on the same day, as opposed to the more piecemeal process mailing out ballots as requests come in.

As for whether he thinks higher participation by absentee voters might improve chances for a ‘no’ vote June 3, Shumski says it’s not useful to speculate on the voting trends of that particular demographic. Shumski says it’s about optimizing turnout. And he says he can’t think of any downside to just sending the ballots out.

If Shumski or other critics want to challenge the decision, they can do so in superior court, according to Senning.

“Everyone has the right to contest an election,” Senning says.