Concerns Raised Over School Budget Absentee Ballots | WAMC

Concerns Raised Over School Budget Absentee Ballots

May 21, 2014

Credit WAMC/Pat Bradley

Burlington voters go to the polls on June 3rd to vote on a revised school district budget. Some are raising concerns over the absentee ballot process.

The Burlington School budget failed during the first ballot on Town Meeting Day in March.  With a re-vote on a revised and expanded budget approaching, some of the school board commissioners and a city councilor are criticizing city officials for not automatically sending absentee ballots to voters who received them for the Town Meeting Day vote.

School board commissioner Scot Shumski is among those calling on Mayor Miro Weinberger to follow the lead of other Vermont towns that faced reconsideration of their school budgets and automatically re-sent absentee ballots.  “Barre City clerk Carol Dawes stated it has been standard practice to resend the absentee ballots since former state Director of Elections Kathy DeWolfe made the recommendation as the safest legal course of action based on her belief 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. And we are asking the Mayor to overturn his decision which will most certainly disenfranchise voters of Burlington, reduce voter turnout, and minimize the validity of the June 3rd election. This is something that we want Burlington to put into tradition and practice going forward,  not just for this election.”

Shumski presented data showing that 1,539 absentee ballots were counted in Burlington’s Town Meeting Day balloting. He added that 400 had been returned two weeks prior to Town Meeting Day. But two weeks before this special election, the rate of return is currently half that, with only 229 returned. Ward Four city councilor Dave Hartnett says his ward tends to have the greatest number of absentee ballots.  “Anytime that we have a second vote, certainly I would hope that we would follow the practice, as other towns and cities do around the state of Vermont, and automatically mail out the absentee ballots to the people that requested them in the first election. It’s not about the school budget for me.  It’s about getting everybody involved in opportunity to participate in Town Meeting Day. And essentially that’s what June 3rd is,  it’s a Town Meeting Day.”

School Board Commissioner Keith Pillsbury noted he had voted by absentee ballot while in the military and he too wants the mayor to mail the absentees.  “For me it’s really the principle that everyone should have the right to vote on the school budget. The schools belong to everyone. And if they’ve requested one once, then this is sort-of a re-vote on the same issue.”

Mayor Weinberger says the city is operating under the guidance of the city attorney and elections officials in finding that the June 3rd school budget vote is a new election and therefore the absentee ballots will not be reissued to Town Meeting Day recipients.  “The city attorney feels strongly this is a new election and under the rules of a new election you have to request a ballot to vote in that election. She came to that opinion after talking to the Secretary of State’s office and also after looking at precedent in Burlington and on past similar situations. We’re following the practice that has been followed in the past.”  

Councilor Hartnett clarified that he wants the city to have a policy in place to deal with Town Meeting Day re-votes in general.  “You’re not talking about something that happens very often. I can’t tell you when the last time the voters have gone back to the polls after Town Meeting Day in March. It doesn’t happen very often. If there’s a Town Meeting Day and we have a run-off election in a city council race, a mayor’s race, or a defeat in the budget, then the people that participated in the Town Meeting Day vote should have the same opportunity to reconsider their vote. To me, it really has nothing to do with the school budget. It just happens to be what we’re voting on.”

Several towns in Vermont facing Town Meeting Day re-votes automatically sent absentee ballots to voters, including Barre City, Richmond, Jericho, and Underhill.