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Friday, December 12, 2008

Recount Volunteers Shine!

Now that the recounts are over, I want to thank the 80+ volunteers that contacted me and helped with the recounts for their outstanding civic spirit and generous donation of their time. Every candidate is entitled to be certain that every vote has been counted, and every citizen is entitled to know that their vote has been counted. They did a great job over many days, and their work is appreciated not only by me and the candidates, but also by the Chittenden County Clerk and her staff.

I want to share with you a commentary from Katherine Hikel, one of the volunteers, about her experience at the recount which exemplifies the civic spirit of all the participants.

Demanding A Recount
by Katherine Hikel

The Chittenden County Superior Court House, on Main Street in Burlington, is a grand historic building, and a fine place to spend a December day, if you are not the defendant. I went there to help with the State Senate ballot recount. Senate candidate Denise Begins Barnard is challenging her loss by 400 votes to Tim Ashe. Superior Court Clerk Diane Lavallee, who oversees the recount, said an estimated 80,000 ballots were cast in Chittenden County during the November election. Those eighty-odd thousand ballots must be all be recounted, by hand – not once, but twice.

The word goes out, through party chairs and organizers; my invitation came by email. Diane and her staff arrange for about 40 counters to come in each day. Everyone stands, and is sworn in as the Recount Committee. Then the group breaks up into tables of four – a Republican, a Democrat, a Progressive, and an independent; and the work begins. The ballots come piled in large bags from each ward. Everyone helps sort them into bundles of fifty. Then we count: one person reads the names of candidates voted for; one checks the reader; and two others mark the votes on tally sheets. Then everyone switches roles and recounts; all the tallies must match.

The work is serious, painstaking – and fun. Seeing everyone at their tables, from different parties, cooperating intently to carry out the task, and enjoying the company, is part of it. At my table were a Republican from Milton, a Progressive from South Burlington, an independent from Essex, and me. The man from Essex has lived in Vermont for 25 years. He’s a new citizen, born in Wales. Upon receiving a bundle of ballots to count, he held them in his hands, and said, "These are the real ballots?" It was a moment of awe. He explained, "I became naturalized in October – this is my first election."

In the State Senate election, there were 14 candidates for six seats. Some voters chose the straight party ticket. One or two picked the six candidates from the top, or from the bottom. A few voted for men, or women, only, across party lines. A few others voted for a single candidate. Many, however, split their vote among men, women, Republicans, Democrats, and Progressives, in what seemed to be a very Vermont spirit of independent thinking. There was a sense, in touching ballots that every voter had filled out, that you held something of value, springing from our common belief in democracy, in the process; and in the personal importance of each ballot. Other than one frivolous write-in vote for Bill The Cat for High Bailiff, there was no monkeying around.

The recount was held in a big corner room with tall windows – it was chilly, and many of us were glad we’d worn layers. There was the smell of coffee, brewed fresh all day. Dishes of mints and packets of cookies were available; but everyone was so busy counting, tallying, adding, reading, and watching that there wasn’t much snacking or sipping going on. My table counted three batches of fifty; then we were given an hour’s break for lunch. I walked down Church Street, enjoying the art, the vendors, and the people; I had a cup of tea and a bun, and strolled back to do another hundred ballots in the afternoon. With ten tables, we’d probably counted three thousand ballots. At this rate, Diane said the recount would take several more weeks.

Recount Committee members must be Vermonters, and 18 years old, but do not have to be residents of Chittenden county. Diane said, "You should be a voter, so you know how to read a ballot." "We need people," she said. "We particularly need Republicans for this recount."

The Court pays $30 per person per day, plus parking. I left shortly after dark, and walked across the courthouse plaza. There was a stone sculpture, with three small children perched on it. Their mother was aiming her camera at them. The letters on the sculpture spelled DEMOCRACY.