Fighting loss, write-in candidate Smith’s options may be limited
By David Taube
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | September 05,2012
MONTPELIER — Write-in candidate for governor Annette Smith, who narrowly lost the Progressive Party’s primary Aug. 28, apparently missed by just two votes the 2 percent margin needed to request a recount.
Official results certified Tuesday showed Martha Abbott received 371 votes, beating Smith’s write-in campaign by 17 votes. Secretary of State Jim Condos said a preliminary calculation showed the difference needed to have been 15 votes or fewer for a recount request to be possible.
The Smith campaign challenged local ballot counts during and after a state canvass committee meeting at the secretary of state’s offices Tuesday, where a representative from each of the state’s three major parties attended to certify the results.
“I’m still looking to the secretary of state to take some responsibility here. They have the obligation to ensure an accurate election,” said Smith, the executive director of the nonprofit Vermonters for a Clean Environment. She did not attend the meeting.
Condos agreed with the duties of his office but said state law doesn’t allow him to request a recount.
“Obviously we want to make sure we get this right. We want fair, honest and accurate elections. It’s the basis of our democracy. It’s the core of our democracy,” Condos said. “But we are under a real timeline crunch here because we have to have (certain general election) ballots in the hands of the clerks by the 21st, so that on Sept. 22 they can start mailing out ballots to overseas and military voters. That’s a federal mandate.”
When a race is close, the losing candidate can request a recount if the difference was less than 2 percent. According to state law, the figure is a percentage of the total number of eligible votes counted, Condos said.
However, the primary can still be contested up to 15 days afterward. Anyone who is an eligible voter can file a complaint in Vermont Superior Court if the person believes errors, fraud or any other factor improperly affected the outcome of a race, Condos said. That makes the deadline Sept. 12, he said.
The ballots for military and overseas voters should be ready for printing next week. The deadline to the printer is considered Monday, but the absolute deadline is Wednesday, Condos said.
Abbott recognized her Progressive Party win after the results were certified Tuesday but simultaneously ended her race for governor. That move does not concede the platform to Smith.
Abbott said in a statement that despite several differences, Gov. Peter Shumlin supports a government-run health care system and the closing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear energy plant, suggesting Progressive Party voters should rally behind his incumbency to support those causes.
As party leaders certified the results Tuesday during the canvass meeting, a campaign organizer for Smith’s write-in nomination raised several challenges to the primary results.
Organizer Stephanie Kaplan said at least one board of civil authority questioned whether it should count ballots on which a voter listed a write-in candidate’s name but didn’t also fill in the adjacent oval space.
She identified the town as Berlin. However, a justice of the peace on the Berlin board, Elizabeth Fitzhugh, said the discussion determined that potentially incomplete ballots should be included. She said if an oval wasn’t filled in, that didn’t matter because the “voter’s intent” trumped the technicality.
Kaplan, however, said other towns could have had that same discussion.
“We think it’s a red herring,” Condos said after the meeting.
Further complicating the issue, ballots incorrectly told voters to write in the candidate’s name and fill in an oval next to the write-in, even though state law requires only a written name for a write-in, Smith said.
“The bad instructions could have made that 2 percent difference. This is a little crazy,” Smith said.
The Smith campaign also suggested that because 993 Progressive Party votes were cast and Smith had 354 votes against Abbott’s 371, at least 200 votes were unaccounted for.
But not everyone who voted on the Progressive Party ballot voted in the governor’s race, Condos said, just as Democrats on Tuesday cast 43,063 votes altogether, but only 34,423 of them for Gov. Peter Shumlin, who was unopposed. The Democratic primary for attorney general was a competitive and closely watched contest.
Smith said she’s willing to sue the secretary of state’s office if necessary and gather affidavits from people who submitted write-in ballots who she said didn’t have their votes counted.
The 371-354 Abbott-to-Smith advantage did not include write-in ballots that were ineligible. Director of Elections and Campaign Finance Kathy Scheele said typically about 5 percent of absentee ballots returned are ineligible.
Some voters also wrote in Smith as lieutenant governor, Kaplan said.
In Democratic Party balloting, 1,289 write-ins occurred, but those were not tallied because only Progressive Party write-ins could have counted in the race against Abbott, state officials said.
Those write-ins for the Democratic primary could have been for anyone, though, including Shumlin. Some five boxes at the secretary of state’s offices, organized by town, include those write-ins, which Kaplan said she and other people plan to count. Though they can’t be included in totals to determine the election or margin needed for a recount, Kaplan said she’s still interested to know how much additional support there may have been.
Voters who gave write-ins in Walden, Kaplan said, also plan to contact their town clerk today.