This week the Vermont House of Representatives authorized a second recount in a contested Orange County House race, and some local election officials around the state are paying close attention to see what precedent it could set for future elections.
For the most part, Wednesday’s vote in the House chamber went down along party lines. The debate was prolonged and there was partisan bickering behind the scenes. Democrats and Progressives voted to hold a recount, and Republicans said no. The ayes had it.
Colchester Town Clerk Karen Richard calls that outcome disappointing.
"We were hoping it wasn’t going to be partisan, it was going to be about the issue," she says.
Earlier in the week, Richard sent out a press release on behalf of the Vermont Municipal Clerks’ and Treasurers’ Association. The release says a recount by the House would cast doubt on the integrity of future elections.
On Election Day last November, Republican Bob Frenier beat incumbent Progressive-Democrat Susan Hatch Davis by eight votes in the Orange-1 House District. A recount later that month saw Freinier’s lead shrink slightly, but the outcome was the same.
Hatch Davis asked a judge to order a second recount, this one to be done by hand, but that request was declined. And so Hatch Davis appealed to the Legislature – the ultimate authority on the matter under Vermont law.
Richard points out that five of the six towns involved hand-counted ballots on election night. And those numbers didn’t change when a tabulator was used in the recount.
"I believe that that election has already had its due diligence," says Richard. "If something had surfaced between the hand-count and the machine-count I would say, yes, let’s look at it a third time. But nothing’s surfaced to get it to this level."
Like Richard, Wolcott Town Clerk Linda Martin also says she’s disappointed that the House vote became so polarized. But unlike Richard, Martin supports the House recount.
"I know there’s a lot of controversy around it and some of the clerks are feeling like their integrity is being undermined," says Martin. "But I don’t see it that way. I see it as an opportunity for them to show that they did follow everything correctly."
In addition to her 31 years as a town clerk, Martin also served for a decade on the House Government Operations Committee – which sent the issue to the House floor for this week’s vote.
"The law allows someone to follow these steps of appeal and process and we should allow our voters, our residents, whoever they are, to be able to complete that process," says Martin.
Martin, who ran as a Democrat, no longer serves in the House and says she wasn’t privy to the testimony taken in the Government Operations Committee. But, she says, the committee must have heard something that made them decide to recommend a recount.
"They must have found a couple things that just gave them pause," she says. "So they’re not saying that they’re finding anything wrong but that they just want to follow the appeal process through. And I think that they should do that."
As to Republican claims that conducting a recount is an unusual move for the House, Martin says that’s not the case.
"I’ve even been there when this has happened, so it’s not unprecedented," she says.
The last contested legislative election was in 2011, in a race between Republican David Ainsworth and Democrat Sarah Buxton, in Windsor County. Buxton’s win by a single vote was upheld.
The record of the Legislature weighing in on contested elections goes back to a tie race in 1872. For two decades, between 1878 and 1898, there was at least one contested legislative election every biennium.
More recently, there was a similar run of contested elections between 1977 and 1985. Records show two races have been overturned by the Legislature since 1977. But most observers, including Colchester Town Clerk Richard, agree this latest House recount is unlikely to change the results of the election.
"I believe the count’s going to come out the same," says Richard. "I don’t doubt that."
But, Richard says, the process is going to take a while. In the meantime, Bob Frenier will continue to represent his Orange County constituents at the Statehouse.