While Vermonters vote for president and statewide offices in less than two weeks, voters in Essex won’t consider the unified recreation district plan despite November 8 being the preferred date to do so by both the local governing boards and the committee that proposed it.
Instead, the selectboard and trustees will vote whether to warn the question for December.
That’s because town clerk Cheryl Moomey chose to not hold both elections on the same day, she said.
“It was my decision and my decision alone that this would be difficult, if not impossible,” Moomey wrote in a memo to the Recreation Governance Study Committee.
Her decision has unsettled those who think it was possible, with some maneuvering, to hold the vote on a day typically gleaning high voter turnout.
December’s vote will be the fourth and fifth time town and village voters have faced a decision this year, respectively. Voting on school budgets in April, both the town and village sported an identical, dismal 5.35 percent turnout rate.
Comparatively, the August primary saw a 23 percent turnout across Essex’s three districts.
Moomey decided to organize a special election to “minimize the confusion” for voters.
Vermont requires state and federal ballots be available 45 days before the election, September 23 for this cycle. Petitions for local elections are due the sixth Monday before the election, or October 3.
Absentee voters, about 2,400 so far this year, would have needed to re-request an absentee ballot to vote in the local election, Moomey said. Complicating matters further is Essex’s districting map, which was restructured in the 2010 Census.
Some Pearl Street residents belong in the town’s district for state and federal elections. For local elections, however, they are in the village district.
Those 128 voters would vote on the state and federal ballot at Essex Middle School before voting on the town rec ballot in a separate room, Moomey said, but there isn’t extra space or voting machines to do so.
Since these voters are considered village residents for local elections, they would also need to vote on the village rec ballot at Essex High School, making it three votes in two separate locations.
In prepping more than 30 elections during her 15 years as clerk, Moomey said the rec vote was the most difficult to configure.
The December date is a major point of contention from the proposal’s challengers, specifically selectboard vice chairwoman Irene Wrenner, who believe the town could have remedied Moomey’s concerns.
To get around the absentee issue, the question of forming the district could have been on the November ballot, and the election for the district’s board could be held in December, Wrenner said.
With overlapping districts, Wrenner said the town could have provided an additional poll worker at EMS to maintain the separate voting area.
Voters could then move to the gym and vote in the state and federal election, Wrenner said.
Similarly, Pearl Street voters could place their village rec ballot in a locked box when voting at the middle school to avoid needing to travel to Essex High School.
Those ballots could be either hand-counted or brought to the high school to be machine-counted with other village ballots, she said.
Wrenner says the selectboard couldn’t address these concerns due to misinformation from town officials, who informed both the trustees, selectboard and prudential committee in June that a November vote is simply impossible.
Then, joint municipal manager Pat Scheidel confirmed that holding the two elections on the same day is “definitely impossible.”
“Upon checking with the guru in the secretary of state’s office, it cannot happen,” he said them.
However, Will Senning, director of elections in the Secretary of State’s office, said that’s not the case.
Senning said he told Moomey it was both legal and possible to have local and federal elections on the same day. A number of such instances are occurring this year, he added.
Still, it’s “fully reasonable” for a town clerk to assess the election and advocate for a position, he said — in this case, a separate election.
“That’s fair to say the more complicated and logistically confusing a polling place would be, you run the risk of more voters feeling like something went wrong,” Senning said.
In a phone interview Tuesday morning, Scheidel said he reported what Moomey relayed from her conversation with Senning back in June — that it would be “impossible to hold an election that was not going to be challenged.”
“The clerk is the one who decides what she can and can’t do, what is possible or impossible,” Scheidel said.
The committee’s FAQs, which initially said a November vote was impossible, have since been updated to quote Moomey’s viewpoint that holding two elections on the same day opens the door for a contested election.
Though all elections are open to contest, Senning said there’s no inherent risk built in from holding two on the same day.
Any legal voter can file a contested election claim with the superior court within 15 days of an election. Complaints must prove there were errors or fraud that changed the vote’s result.
Wrenner admitted the issue may appear as “water over the dam” since it’s too late to change the vote’s date but said it represents a bigger issue.
“As with so much else related to the rec [special taxing district] proposal, I’m seeing how a process lacking in honesty and transparency has led to, and further undermined, a less-than-ideal proposal — and now its voting date,” she wrote in an email to The Reporter.
Scheidel stands by Moomey’s decision “1000 percent” and said he’s not worried about political stances. He noted although it’s ideal to hold elections when the most people will be voting, it’s important to get “every single detail” correct.
“We have many people in our community of late who have been overly zealous in scrutinizing processes,” Scheidel said. “If you’re sitting from the standpoint of the town clerk, and you have another possibility to run a clean election with a local-only issue to manage that you want to guarantee will run correctly, then the decision that was made for December 13 was the best and really the only decision I could see.”