An afternoon at the Recount(?)

On June 24th there was a third budget referendum in Colchester, CT.  There were separate questions for the town budget and the Board of Education budget, both previously twice voted down. This time the town budget passed by a margin of twelve votes and the BOE squeaked by with a margin of four votes.

This was actually the first time I have attended a recount in Connecticut. In the past I have attended about eight recanvasses. Every time, I  have attended a recanvass, either as a member of the public or representing a party or slate, I have learned something. Most often a few good ideas, and new ways not to run a recanvass.  This was an exception, I only learned good things. It was a thoroughly effective recount in all regards, and educational for me.

The first thing I learned was the Connecticut law actually has a recount, yet unlike a recanvass it is essentially undefined! As far as I can tell, there is no definition, no requirements, no rules, no limits or restrictions on how it is conducted. A search of CT Statutes for recount shows it can be ordered by a judge in most elections and primaries, yet like most Connecticut statutes, leaving referendum rules all to each municipality.

In primaries and elections we have a close vote recanvass – when the margin is close there is a recanvass, a weak version of the recounts we have seen in Minnesota and Florida, with less rights to slates, parties, and opposing interests to closely observe the counting, with no rights to object. But at least in the case of Colchester, there is a provision for a close vote recount of a referendum in the town charter, if votes petition for the recount. <Colchester Charter>

Recount of Annual Budget Referendum or special referendums.
Should the vote cast at either the Annual Budget Referendum or a special referendum be decided by a
margin of less than 2.0% of those electors who cast votes, the vote shall be subject to recount upon the
petition of any of the Town voters. During the pendency of such recount, the Town may not take any
action whatsoever in reliance upon the outcome of the initial vote count.

It seems we need to be careful what we ask for, unless it is well defined! A recount could apparently be anything from that ideal we imagine, to perhaps just reading some tapes and forms again. I am not a lawyer, yet it seems one could argue for days in court what a recount should entail.

I was invited by individuals petitioning for the recount, those representing the ‘no’ position on the referendum. I am completely agnostic on this referendum – I am not a voter in Colchester, I have no knowledge of the issues and arguments for or against the budgets.  I do enjoy attending and representing some faction in a recanvass (or a recount). especially if the faction needs help in understanding the process and their rights (so far, almost all do). Normally, I will represent any side that will have me, except where I have taken sides in the contest or would have the appearance of bias. Yet, my preference would be to represent apparent losers and outsiders – those not represented by the elected registrars and other election officials. That was the yesterday.

Representing a side means that I will give them my best advice, work to have a fair and observable recanvass/recount, yet at the same time not intentionally act to aid another faction. Usually, the apparent loser is still the actual loser after the recount/recanvass. To me, it is still a win if the recanvass/recount is fair, transparent, and results in the actual loser accepting the result of the recanvass/recount. That was the case today – I likely played a small part in that, but the credit goes to the ‘no’ faction, and the officials. It was an interesting, fair, and transparent process. (Not everyone has this same prospective. In my experience, it seems that many party lawyers scrutinize recanvasses jist enough to find errors, so that if they believe it would be beneficial, they could later challenge the result it court. I am all for such a challenge if it is justified, yet I would prefer an accurate, trustworthy result from the recanvass/recount as well.)

The two registrars assisting the Head Moderator, who led the recount. went will beyond the requirements of a recanvass, to provide a transparent, effective process, open to questions and objections. I wish it was always that way! Too often, some questions are not welcomed, most objections are unwelcome, objections cut-off, transparency to observe ballots limited, and the process not even meeting the inadequate recanvass procedures.  Often factions are unaware of their rights, when they should be at least asking for even more. When I represent a faction, I insist on following the procedures, and at least ask for more.

Credit goes to the ‘no’ faction for thoroughly going through all the absentee ballot lists and questioning some items we did not understand – they were well explained by the registrars and town clerk, who was also present. They also closely scrutinized the absentee ballot applications – they found two that were apparently defective – I cannot say that officials officially agreed they were defective – a judge would likely have to finally rule on that.

There was considerable concern about absentee ballots. In the 1st two referendums there were 21 and 19 absentee votes. This time 90. According to the petitioners there was a strong campaign by advocates for ‘yes’ to get out the absentee vote. According to the registrars a major factor was that the third referendum was the 1st week of summer vacation, with many parents (likely ‘yes’ voters) on vacation. I noted that the absentee ballots were all half-sheet paper forms.  Talking to the registrars it was motivated by saving money, since the minimum order of ballots is 100, and in the previous referendums, so few were needed. They were counted quite efficiently in four stacks, of yes-yes, no-no, no-yes, and yes-no, there were no partial votes. ‘no’ had won the polling place voting. ‘yes’ had carried the absentee votes.

So, we had an original four vote margin. With two defective absentee applications, that likely would bring the provable margin down to two. If the recount margin were two or less, one way or the other, then a judge would likely call for a re-vote, as the will of the legal voters could then not be determined.

As I suspected there were very few votes that could not be accurately read by the scanner, actually none where there was an issue of voter intent that would have been different for the scanner scanner count. Several bubbles were partially filled in and several ballots that the scanner refused to read, were hand counted. The final margin for the town budget remained at twelve. The final margin for the BOE budget was three – just one vote from a likely successful legal challenge.

Important lessons.

  • The recount was conducted so well, the relations between officials, ‘no’ faction, and ‘yes’ faction were so cordial that nobody for a moment, as far as I can tell, considered that the final count might be incorrect.
  • Opposition can work hard, yet remain cordial.
  • An effective, open process is worthwhile for everyone.
  • Every detail matters. It is important that every absentee ballot application be scrutinized by official to make sure that it is properly filled out, so that votes and whole elections are later not called into question.
  • It is important for concerned candidates and citizens to check such details.
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