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How does a recount work? Ballot by ballot, Vergennes reassesses election

VERGENNES — A meticulous Monday afternoon recount at Vergennes City Hall confirmed the March 7 results of the race for city mayor: Former three-term Mayor Mike Daniels edged two-term incumbent Bill Benton, 270-265.
That margin, one that is less than 1 percent of the votes cast on Town Meeting Day, remained unchanged after two hours of painstaking counting by five members of the Vergennes Board of Civil Authority: Justices of the Peace Barry Aldinger, Lynn Pope and Rena Trepanier, and Aldermen Lowell Bertrand and Mark Koenig.
City Clerk Joan Devine ran the proceedings, instructing the BCA members on how to follow state law in sorting and counting ballots.
Daniels observed the proceedings, while Alderman Jeff Fritz represented Benton, who had a medical appointment in anticipation of a Tuesday surgical procedure.
Daniels said all along he expected a tight race, and he supported Benton’s request for the recount because of the slim margin.
“I’m happy that Bill requested it, because it’s just a clarification that brings closure,” Daniels said. “Everybody understands how the voters have spoken.”
The two candidates while standing outside the polls on March 7 had pledged to support each other. Daniels, who also had said he backed many of Benton’s initiatives, such as upgrading the Otter Creek basin and improving downtown pedestrian safety, referred to that discussion on Monday.
“I look forward to hopefully Bill wanting to help so we can both accomplish a lot of what he started,” Daniels said. “And we’re on the right track.”
Fritz, a Benton backer during the campaign, said Benton had been urged by many supporters to seek a second count because of the slim margin.
“I don’t think when you’re that close you can go without recounting,” Fritz said. “It’s five votes. Things happen. It was a matter of course, you had to follow through. And he had a lot of people calling for him to do it. So that’s why we were encouraging him to proceed. If you don’t ask the question, you don’t get the answer. So the question was asked, and we got the answer.”
Like Daniels, Fritz said it was healthy to confirm the result.
“People make a lot of comments, and I think by opening the ballot bag, by all of us sitting there looking at them today, we all affirmed the count,” Fritz said. “We should all feel very comfortable.”
HOW A RECOUNT WORKS
Certainly, the procedures the five BCA members followed under Devine’s guidance, beginning at 1 p.m., appeared to leave no room for error. Devine constantly reminded them to go slowly and get each part of the process correct.
“We’re not in a rush. Take your time,” Devine said. “We’re going to follow the law step by step.”
The first step belonged to Devine — breaking the seal on the bag containing the ballots and checklist from March 7 in front of the witnesses.
The ballots for the Addison Northwest School District budget vote were in a separate bag within the larger bag and were set aside. Then Trepanier and Pope took on the task of verifying the number of ballots, with Trepanier reading off the vote count on each checklist sheet and Pope entering the numbers into a calculator. When their work was double-checked, Devine announced the total of 546 agreed with the March 7 tally.
Devine then administered an oath of impartiality to the counters, and the counters sorted the 546 ballots into five piles: Daniels votes, Benton votes, spoiled ballots, defective ballots, and a group of write-in and absentee ballots.
Each counter’s work was double-checked by another counter, and eventually it was determined 11 voters chose neither man. On the side, Daniels said some voters told Benton and him that they had voted for both of them, and he speculated their method was to vote for neither.
That left 535 ballots to be recounted in the mayor’s race, equaling the total votes cast. The next step, as required by law, was to sort each stack of votes for the candidates into piles of 50.
Trepanier and Pope worked on Benton’s stack, with Aldinger eventually relieving Trepanier, and Bertrand and Koenig took on Daniels ballots. If this had been a partisan race, Devine would have made sure one member of each team was a Democrat and a Republican, but city council and mayoral candidates in Vergennes do not identify themselves by party affiliation.
Their work produced 10 piles of 50 ballots apiece, each topped off with a white sheet labeled 1 through 10, plus one smaller pile labeled No. 11 containing the final 35 ballots.
At that point, the race was all but decided: There had been 20 ballots left over on Koenig and Bertrand’s side, and five piles of 50 plus 20 equaled 270.
But the process was far from over: Each stack of 50 ballots was counted out loud, one-by-one, by one BCA member and recorded one at a time by another to confirm that each stack contained 50 votes. Then the jobs were traded and done again, so that each stack was counted twice.
Devine said the best way to handle what was essentially the heart of the process was for counters to relax and get the job right the first time.
“We just have to slow down here,” she said.
As the clock ticked toward 3 p.m., the stacks were confirmed at 250 votes for each candidate. It took less time to count the remainder: 20 more for Daniels for 270, 15 more for Benton for 265, and an affirmation of the March 7 tally.
Devine said afterward the city’s vote-counting machine is highly reliable and will reject ballots that are either marked with too many votes in a race or partially marked for one candidate and then fully marked for the other when a voter makes an initial mistake. In those cases, poll workers put the ballots on a slot on the side of the machine and tally the votes by hand later.
“That machine will pick up that little dot and kick it out,” Devine said. “All we do is drop it in the side and hand-count it, and you can clearly see as a counter what the voter’s intent was.”
If all votes were counted by hand initially, a recount would almost certainly shift the final tally, as Devine said once happened in a close city council race in the past.
“I love that tabulator,” she said. “It’s way more accurate than a hand count.”
As for the BCA members, they might just as soon see more decisive results in the future, one way or the other.
“I’m actually quite thankful that this doesn’t happen more often,” said Bertrand after Devine had re-sealed the bag.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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