BENNINGTON — With 18 of Bennington County's 19 voting districts unofficial election results tallied this morning, James Gulley Jr. has won the sheriff's race with 46 percent of the vote. Joel Howard received 22 percent and Beau Alexander won 16 percent.
The race to succeed outgoing Sheriff Chad Schmidt, who did not seek reelection, was the highest profile countywide contest in primary balloting, while candidates for area House and Senate seats, state’s attorney, probate judge and assistant judge faced no primary challenges. In the Democratic primary, Alexander, Gulley and Howard were competing for the nomination.
Gulley won most of the districts by a comfortable margin, including both Bennington districts, Manchester, Arlington, Dorset, Shaftsbury, Sunderland and Winhall, according to the Vermont Secretary of State's office. Howard won both Pownal districts. Alexander won in Peru. And Gulley and Howard tied in Searsburg with each receiving one of the two votes cast in that race.
In the county's High Bailiff race, only 84 votes separate the two candidates, with incumbent Frederick Gilbar receiving 1,791 votes and his challenger, Bennington College student Will Greer, winning 1,707 with 18 of the 19 districts reporting.
Gilbar won by comfortable margins in districts including Bennington, Pownal and Shaftsbury. Greer's wins included Arlington, Dorset and Manchester.
Beau Alexander said Tuesday afternoon that he and his nomination opponents for sheriff, James Gulley Jr. and Joel Howard, were having “some pretty good talks” with Bennington voters and fielding questions.
“It has been a pretty good turnout, and there were quite a few undecided, which was surprising,” he said.
The reaction to his candidacy, Alexander said, seemed a positive one.
“It was a slow morning,” Gulley said. “But you know a lot of people are showing up in the [intermittent] rain ... But there’s been a lot of support. I feel very confident."
“It’s been pretty busy all day. It’s been pretty steady, ” Howard said of the voter traffic in Bennington. “I feel pretty comfortable; it’s good. I’m not overconfident ... but I think it’s pretty good, and hopefully things will go in my favor.”
Gulley, 43, of Bennington, is an officer and investigator with the Manchester Police Department, and a criminal justice instructor at Southwest Tech; Howard, 49, of Pownal, is a lieutenant with the Sheriff’s Department, and Alexander, 38, a resident of Shaftsbury, has worked in probation and parole and private security positions.
“We don’t have a big turnout for a state primary in general, but comparatively speaking, the absentees were higher,” said Assistant Bennington Town Clerk Kayla Thompson on Tuesday afternoon, and believes that part of that was that the Secretary of State’s office mass mailed postcards to Vermont voters with information on early and other voting options.
“Yesterday, at the close of business, we had 765 absentee voters,” said Town Clerk Cassandra Barbeau on Tuesday, who added that a few more ballots normally are dropped off or arrive in the mail on election day.
“I would say four to five hundred [absentee ballots] is what we usually get in a state primary.”
This year, Barbeau said during the early afternoon, “I suspect we will be about average, maybe a little bit better.”
In contrast, in the August 2020 primary, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, “We had the highest turnout I’ve ever seen for a state primary,” she said, “but it was because of COVID, definitely.”
There were state special provisions in place to expand access to early voting, she said, and allow voters to avoid crowded polling places.
In the 2020 primary, total turnout was 2,981, and 2,183 were absentee ballots, she said.
Asked what voters were talking about outside the Shaftsbury polling place on North Road, state Rep. David Durfee, D-Bennington-3, said that was sometimes difficult to determine, since quite a few “go directly in and then back again” to their vehicles, indicating many are sure who they want to vote for.
“But I think what is on everybody’s mind is prices and inflation, and that is right here at the local level too,” he said.
Durfee had no opponent on the Democratic primary ballot, but he will face Republican Victor Harwood Jr., of Shaftsbury, in November.
Christine Morrissey, who held a sign for Joel Howard, said she believes the sheriff’s race is the main focus among the countywide contests.
“I know Joel Howard would be there for the people,” she said. “And I’ve worked with the man as a dispatcher” at the Sheriff’s Department.
Chris Williams, who also was outside the Shaftsbury polling place, said, “I think the results of this election are going to be with us for quite a few years. That’s why this is important, because whoever we send to Congress – especially that one – you know, whoever wins the Democratic primary is going to be elected; we know that ... Vermonters re-elect incumbents; we all know that.”
Shaftsbury Town Clerk Marlene Hall said Tuesday about 350 early ballots were received, “which is quite a bit for a primary, for Shaftsbury.”
She added, “I think the absentees are a little heavier than they were, but I think people are also getting used to it.”
Voting on primary day seemed about average as of early afternoon, she said.
In Manchester, Town Clerk Anita Sheldon said Tuesday more than 600 votes had been cast there as of 1:35 p.m., but she believes it’s difficult to talk about any voter turnout trend.
“Coming out of COVID, it is hard to gauge what’s going on,” she said.