When the Village of Essex Junction Board of Trustees and the Essex Westford School District (EWSD) school board got together on a May 5 video conference to discuss the legislature-approved option of mailing ballots to voters, one of the reasons they liked the idea was that they hoped it might increase participation in the elections.
And did it ever.
Voting for the EWSD annual budget saw a whopping increase of 432 percent--going from 934 in 2019 to 4,968 this year. The total votes counted in 2020 -- another 72 being over and undervotes -- was 5.32 times as many than in 2019 and 4.35 times as many than the average of the last three years.
The district had actually seen a decrease in budget voting over the last three years with 1,050 in 2018 and 1,224 in 2017. 2020 had a 365 percent increase than the average of that stretch.
“The board was very pleased by the increase in turnout resulting from mailing ballots to every voter,” said Martha Heath, school board chair. “I haven’t spoken with my board about the future. I do think if it were allowed by the state, we would be interested in doing it again. The only downside that I observed was that it was challenging to get the ballots mailed out.”
The village saw similar increases with its 1,930 reported votes cast being 324 percent higher and 4.24 times as many than last year’s 455. Compared to the previous three years' average of 462.7, 2020 saw a 317 percent increase and 4.17 times as many votes.
“I am very thankful to the Village of Essex Junction for the overwhelming support of the village's budget,” said Trustees President Andrew Brown. “Through the efforts of our amazing staff, municipal services will continue to operate and at a reasonable cost. Furthermore, we witnessed the results of removing nearly every existing barrier to voting throughout Essex and Westford. In the Village of Essex Junction, we had more than three times the number of voters compared to the previous year--to me, this is a significant success. In the age we live in, with the technological advances we take for granted every day, we should no longer require people to be in one place at one specific time during one specific day every year to exercise their only official option in having their voice heard.”
The higher turnouts came with a price, however. Town staff says that it cost an estimated $9,658 to send out the nearly 15,000 ballots to active voters and another $7,450 being estimated for return postage--not to mention the many hours put forth by village and district staff and officials to stuff envelopes, send them, and then open and count ballots upon their return.
“We are extremely appreciative that so many active voters participated either in person or by mail,” said EWSD Superintendent Beth Cobb. “I know our town offices, school board members, along with many other volunteers contributed many hours to make it possible, and we are ever so grateful. We do realize it was a heavy lift and expense for folks to make it all possible. If it is to happen again, we need to strategize more efficient and effective ways to make it better.”
The village and school district split the cost for the ballots sent to residents of Essex Junction while EWSD covered the cost for ballots sent to residents from the rest of the town.
While voters can routinely request absentee ballots -- and have to pay for their own return postage -- the ability to conduct elections through the mail this year came about through a bill signed into law by Governor Phil Scott in late March, as an emergency measure to assist municipalities during the coronavirus pandemic. That bill also allowed municipalities that vote from the floor during annual meetings -- like the village does for its budget -- with Australian ballots without that change being approved by voters.