BENNINGTON — Town Clerk Cassandra Barbeau said her office is handling an extensive public records request related to the 2020 election while preparing for the 2022 election in November.
The request was filed Sept. 1 by former Select Board candidate Colleen Harrington of Bennington, who has been in the clerk’s office this week taking photos of each of the ballots cast here in November 2020.
Asked if the process was disruptive to the office, Barbeau said, “I made it such that I am not being hassled. I’m simply providing the ballots to her, and that takes a few minutes to bring the bag up and show her that it’s sealed with a tag, and I cut it off in her presence.”
She added, “Luckily the office hasn’t been too busy today and yesterday, and I was able to sit at the same table ... [Harrington] has been respectful, but it is up to me to ensure the security and integrity of the ballots while they are still in existence.”
Harrington originally requested all the approximately 7,100 ballots cast here in November 2020, which included Joe Biden’s election victory over then-President Donald Trump.
Many similar records requests around the U.S. are believed related to Trump’s on-going assertions that the election was “stolen” from him, and conservative activists have raised a range of these and other challenges to the now-certified results around the country.
Harrington said, however, that her request is not related to the presidential election and her focus is on Vermont voting and races.
“No, it’s not. I’m really more interested in Vermont, to be honest,” she said. “I’m just analyzing the election, in total. I want to know in my mind that everything is right. And I’m hoping that’s the case. Honestly, I am.”
Barbeau said town counsel Merrill Bent told her state law allows citizens to look at past election ballots but she can’t legally give away the actual ballots — only copies.
Instead, Barbeau is allowing Harrington to go through the ballots in the presence of staff or members of the town Board of Civil Authority and to photograph each ballot.
Harrington said she’s spent part of two days in the clerk’s office this week photographing ballots one by one, and she expects to return for at least two more days next week. She intends to create a spreadsheet within the next month and then analyze the voting results.
“I’m not focusing on anything specifically,” she said. “I just want to do a spreadsheet analysis and make sure that everything, you know, jives.”
DUE FOR SHREDDING
The ballots must be held for 22 months after an election, Barbeau said, after which they can legally be shredded. They are in Bennington to make room for the storage of the the next election’s ballots, the clerk said.
Those from the 2020 election will be shredded after Harrington is finishing copying them, she said.
A BAG AT A TIME
Barbeau allowed Harrington to work with one bag of ballots at a time at a table in the clerk’s office where staff monitor the process. In addition, she has had to call on members of the town Board of Civil Authority when staff members are at lunch or otherwise can’t handle the monitoring — and the office must pay $13 per hour for those residents to come in.
Barbeau said she can see how such a request would prove expensive or time-consuming for some small towns with just the clerk to staff it.
For a larger town like Bennington, asking for copies of each ballot could prove costly — at least $1,500 for the 2020 ballots and staff time, Barbeau said.
That is at a state-approved rate of 5 cents per page and 33 cents per minute after the first half-hour of staff time required, she said. There is no charge for the first 30 minutes.
‘LOT OF WORK’
Harrington said there is no one organization behind the election records requests around the state but many who know one another and share concerns about election irregularities. Several have asked her for help with requests in their towns, she said.
But when it comes to having to pay for numerous copies or commit to photographing them, as she is doing, many drop the idea, Harrington said.
“There are a lot of people who want to help, but it’s a lot of work,” she said. “So when it comes down to it, you know, they just don’t do it a lot of times.”
Harrington said her current request is different than a Bennington voter participation list examination she undertook of the 2018 election results, when she said discrepancies she found indicated multiple clerical errors or possible voter fraud.
Secretary of State Jim Condos later rejected that interpretation, saying in a letter sent to Harrington, “The information that you have provided our office thus far is in no way an indication of voter fraud. At this time, I am not aware of a single anomaly you have raised that is not either explainable, or within the letter of the law.”
The Board of Civil Authority and other town officials also expressed confidence in Barbeau’s handling of the election.