MONTPELIER — City Clerk John Odum is underwhelmed, mildly concerned and more than a little surprised the city’s state-subsidized shift to universal mail-in voting hasn’t generated the response he was hoping for in the run-up to Town Meeting Day.
Montpelier is one of many Vermont communities that accepted the state’s pandemic-related offer to cover the cost of mailing ballots to all active registered voters — not just those who request them.
Odum did — sending out roughly 6,000 ballots earlier this month in a November-like move that, thus far, hasn’t produced November-like results.
Odum didn’t think it would, but just days before the polls open at City Hall next Tuesday, the veteran clerk didn’t think he’d be so uncertain about what to expect.
There are two possibilities, according to Odum, and neither is particularly appealing.
Either turnout is going to be surprisingly low, notwithstanding the fact ballots — complete with postage-paid return envelopes — were mailed to all registered voters, or there will be lines and some waiting outside City Hall next Tuesday owing to a surge of in-person voting Odum had hoped to avoid.
“I just don’t know,” he said.
What is clear at this juncture is Montpelier appears poised to turn conventional wisdom with respect to “all mail” elections on its head.
Theoretically, providing voters with a convenient, cost-free way to vote from home should turn a comparatively low turnout election, like Town Meeting Day, into one that comes closer to matching the higher turnout models for a general election in November.
“It ain’t happening,” said Odum, who has seen enough to know absent a wave of in-person voting, Town Meeting Day turnout in Montpelier is going to look a lot like, well, Town Meeting Day turnout in Montpelier.
In a typical year, Odum said between 2,000 and 2,500 voters cast ballots in the city’s Town Meeting Day elections.
Thanks to the presidential primary that figure swelled to roughly 3,300 last year. In 2019, it was a bit sluggish — only 1,835 ballots were cast.
When Odum mailed out ballots earlier this month, he was optimistic turnout would match or possibly exceed last year’s March elections even in the absence of a presidential primary.
He isn’t anymore.
“It’s so much lower than I expected,” he said.
Though the numbers keep changing as the mail continues to move, Odum said the window is quickly closing and soon the drop box behind City Hall will be the only reliable option to voting in person.
On Thursday morning, Odum said 1,320 ballots had been returned — a number he expected to swell to more than 1,500 by the end of the day.
That’s good, but not great, and it suggests there will be a serious drop off from the city’s last all-mail election.
During the general election in November, a jaw-dropping 4,450 early ballots were returned, accounting for the vast majority of the 5,192 ballots that were cast that day.
“We’re not going to get near there,” Odum said. “There’s really not time.”
Despite a pair of contested elections for City Council seats — Nat Frothingham is challenging Councilor Lauren Hierl in District 1 and Alice Goltz is hoping to unseat Councilor Dan Richardson in District 3 — Odum is predicting turnout will be north of 2,000, but not by a lot.
“It sure looks like it’s going to be a typical Town Meeting Day election,” Odum said, noting he couldn’t say whether Montpelier’s experience was an aberration or part of a trend.
Berlin Town Clerk Rosemary Morse took a stab at it.
“I think it’s a trend,” Morse said Thursday.
Morse, who initially mailed out postcards encouraging the town’s 1,856 registered voters to request absentee ballots, later mailed 1,856 ballots when the Select Board decided to follow the lead of other towns in the Washington Central Unified Union School District and give universal mail-in voting a try at the state’s expense.
According to Morse, 1,856 ballots went out earlier this month and, as is the case in Montpelier, the return rate is underwhelming.
“We haven’t even hit 400 yet,” she said.
Before the mail was delivered Thursday, Morse, who received about 500 requests in response to her initial postcard, had received 358 completed ballots.
“I expected a lot more ballots back by now,” she said.
A year ago, more than 750 Berlin voters cast ballots in the March elections and, despite blanketing the town with ballots, Morse said she’s skeptical that turnout can be matched before the polls close at the municipal office building next Tuesday.
“I guess anything’s possible,” she said.
East Montpelier Town Clerk Rosie Laquerre is somewhat more optimistic and believes turnout next Tuesday will be “slightly better” than a typical Town Meeting Day.
East Montpelier was the first of the Washington Central towns to opt to mail ballots to all registered voters, and Laquerre mailed more than 2,100 earlier this month.
Thursday afternoon, she supervised feeding the latest batch into a vote tabulator — a weekly exercise she predicted earlier in the day would push the total of banked ballots close to 500.
“Generally, we have about 550 people vote by Australian ballot (on Town Meeting Day),” she said, explaining that number doubles in presidential primary years.
Laquerre isn’t expecting a lot of people to show up at East Montpelier Elementary School to vote in person next Tuesday and given the town’s historic voting patterns she is comfortable with the number of ballots she has received back so far.
“We’re right around where I expected we would be,” she said.
Not all communities, chose to send ballots to every registered voter.
In Barre, City Clerk Carol Dawes mailed postcards to voters, which is also a reimbursable expense, encouraging them to consider requesting absentee ballots.
Dawes received just over 1,300 such requests and through Thursday she said about half of the ballots she mailed in response had been returned.
Dawes said she is optimistic most of the rest will arrive before the polls close at the Barre Municipal Auditorium at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.
“You would think everyone who requested a ballot will want to return it,” she said, noting one she just mailed to resident wintering in Florida might not make it back in time.
The average Town Meeting Day turnout in Barre is roughly 1,100 in a nonpresidential primary year and, given the number of requested ballots, Dawes said she hopes to surpass that next week.
According to Dawes, ballots can be deposited in drop boxes, which are in front of and behind City Hall, through Monday. They will be taped shut on Tuesday, and those who wait until the last minute will have to bring them to the auditorium where the polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.