By Julia Purdy
Ballots bursting with candidates for prominent positions make for exciting races and clear winners, but a deeper dive can offer clues about the minds of voters, especially in primary elections, which are noted for their low turnout, and especially in unsettled times.
Two overlooked features of the ballot are the write-ins and “blank votes” (counted even though no choice is made).
The Mountain Times tracked official returns from Killington, Mendon and Chittenden. While the most familiar names garnered the majority of votes, both the write-in votes and blank votes held some surprises.
Each official report lists the total registered voters, the voters who signed in at the polling place or returned absentee ballots, and the numbers of voters who voted Democratic, Republican or Progressive.
These numbers sketch out a tentative but informative political profile of each community, based on primary results.
In general, voter turnout across all three towns averaged 20-25 percent of the electorate, with Republican voters outnumbering Democrats, while for the Progressives, three ballots were counted in Chittenden, and just one each in Mendon and Killington.
Ballots are not counted when they have an obviously absurd candidate written in, such as Donald Duck, Mendon Town Clerk Nancy Gondella said. Otherwise, a voter can write in any name or leave the ballot blank and the ballot will be accepted, she said.
Vermont voters must select a party, but they can write in a candidate from a different party or an undeclared candidate. Since 1777, the “Freeman’s Oath,” now the Voter’s Oath, has called on Vermonters to vote their conscience for the public good, “without fear or favor.”
In general, August primary voters in the three towns seemed largely reluctant to change horses in the middle of the stream. Voters tended to favor the incumbents regardless of party affiliation.
In Killington, out of 950 registered voters, 213 turned in valid ballots. Of those, Democrats cast 83 ballots, or 39 percent of the turnout; Republicans cast 129, or 61 percent; and there was one Progressive voter. Overall, 22 percent of the electorate voted.
Among Democrats, in write-in votes, six chose Republican Phil Scott and two voted for Republican Jim Harrison for state rep. The state senate category was all write-ins, with a mix of party affiliations, including Killington resident and Republican Dave Soucy.
A lone Progressive turned out, writing in U.S. and prominent state incumbents of both parties but leaving the state rep ballot blank. That Progressive also wrote in Dave Soucy and Brian Collamore, also a Republican, for state senator.
On the Republican ballot, four voters wrote in Senator Bernie Sanders and Secretary of State Jim Condos, five wrote in U.S. Representative Peter Welch, two wrote in incumbent Democrats for state treasurer and lieutenant governor, one wrote in the incumbent attorney general, and three wrote in the incumbent state auditor, all Democrats. Cheryl Hooker, a Democrat, was the lone write-in for state senator.
In Mendon, 231 voters cast ballots out of 909 registered voters. Democrat ballots numbered 89, or 39 percent of the turnout; Republicans selected 141 ballots or 61 percent of the turnout; and there was one Progressive voter. Overall, 25 percent of the electorate voted.
Three Democrat voters wrote in Republican Phil Scott for governor. One Democrat voter and one Progressive wrote in Republican Jim Harrison for their representative to Montpelier.
The lone Progressive also wrote in Democrat incumbent Peter Welch for U.S. representative, Republican Brian Collamore for state senator, and a full Democratic slate for state treasurer, secretary of state, state auditor and attorney general.
One Mendon Republican wrote in Independent Bernie Sanders for U.S. senator and Democrats Peter Welch for U.S. representative and T.J. Donovan for attorney general.
Chittenden reported 1,078 registered voters, and 215 ballots were cast. Democrats turned in 113 ballots, or 53 percent of the total turnout; Republican ballots numbered 158, or 73 percent; and Progressives totaled 3, or about 1 percent. Overall, 20 percent of the electorate voted.
In Chittenden, the crossover pattern continued. Phil Scott garnered the lone Democrat crossover write-in vote.
Among the three Progressive voters, Democrats Bernie Sanders gained two write-ins and Peter Welch one, while Phil Scott and Keith Stern tied for governor. Most of the Progressive ballot was blank.
Two Republicans voted for Bernie Sanders and one for Peter Welch; David Zuckerman, the incumbent lieutenant governor, received one Republican vote, as did State Auditor Doug Hoffer. The incumbent secretary of state and attorney general garnered two Republican write-in votes each, while Democrat Cheryl Hooker bagged one write-in vote for state senator.
Crossover voting was not the only notable aspect of write-ins in the 2018 August primary. New local faces appeared as well, thanks to write-ins.
Greg Cox of Rutland, farmer, president of the Vermont Farmers’ Food Center and locavore activist-educator, came in second in both Mendon and Killington, with 20 and six write-in votes, respectively, for state senator on the Democratic ticket. In Chittenden, Cox was the frontrunner with 42 Democrat votes.
Blank votes count too
When ballots allow more than one choice, such as state senator or assistant judge, each option can count as a blank vote when left unmarked, often producing large numbers of blank votes. This election offered 11 one-vote ballots and two multiple-vote ballots, across all parties.
Progressive voters tended to leave many down-ballot votes blank.
In Killington, the most blank Democratic votes were turned in for the position of state senator. Killington Republicans left ballots blank in large numbers for Congressional seats and upper-level state offices, especially the state senate and the judicial branch.
In Mendon, the governor’s race netted 22 blank Democratic votes. The most blank votes were turned in for the state senator slate and less well-known lower positions.
Mendon Republicans left ballots blank in the largest numbers for U.S. Senator and Representative to Congress, and across the board in upper level state incumbents.
In Chittenden, the fewest Democratic blank votes were turned in for Congressional candidates but the number of blanks crept steadily up through the rest of the ballots. Republican voters boycotted with blank votes most of the candidates in large numbers except Phil Scott and State Rep Jim Harrison.
Blank votes can suggest a single-issue or uninformed voter, or a voter who just doesn’t care, said Beth Fleck, running for state rep from Rutland District 5-4 on the Republican ticket. Some voters vote for one or two candidates such as governor or U.S. candidates and leave the rest of the ballots blank, she commented.
Greg Cox said he hoped the blank boxes mean that voters feel they are lacking enough information to make an informed choice. They also may be unhappy with the performance of an incumbent, he added. “We need to be an electorate that does not vote for simple “R,” “D” or “P.’”