Bennington Clerk sees 500% spike in absentee ballot requests

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BENNINGTON — The Bennington town clerk's office has seen an spike in requests for absentee ballots, with an approximate 500% increase from regular years.

"Generally, for a state primary, depending on if it's a presidential year or a midterm year, total turnout can be between 800 and 2,000; absentees are usually three or four hundred," said Town Clerk Cassandra Barbeau.

However, as of right now they have received 1,500 requests and expect around 2,000 in the coming weeks.

"We're nearing 2,000 absentee requests," Barbeau said.

While the increase in requests is greatly accredited to voters wanting to stay safe during the pandemic, Barbeau thinks it is also about convenience. She says that she's already seen an increase in requests for absentee ballots over the years before COVID-19.

Those who wish to vote absentee can request a ballot; no reason is necessary. It is not the same as vote-by-mail, in which every registered voter is sent a ballot without request. Polling places and voting centers are still open for those who cannot or prefer not to vote by mail.

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On June 2 Vermont Senate granted the Secretary of State full authority to determine "whether to mail all registered voters a ballot for this year's General Election in November" according to Paul Burns from the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

With a staff count of two, Barbeau and assistant town clerk Kayla Thompson are working during the weekends to issue all the requests on time. They have already issued 1,200 ballots and assure the community that they will be done in time.

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"We are probably putting out 200 a day, and finally the postcards coming in are slowing down," Barbeau said.

All early voter absentee ballot requests must be submitted by 5 p.m. or by the close of the town clerk's office on the day before the election. All ballots must be returned to the town clerk's office before the close of the office on the day before the election, or to the polling place before 7 p.m. on the day of the election, in order to be counted.

A couple of weeks ago Barbeau attended a Zoom meeting with more than 50 Vermont town clerks to brainstorm ideas on how to set up the election and enable social distancing.

In addition to ballots, the Town Hall is working hard to keep up with other requests such as issuing curbside pickup marriage licenses, birth certificates, and land records.

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"Real estate is really busy, the mortgage rates are low, people are refinancing, so we're busy with real estate right now," said Barbeau.

But the increase in requests has been a statewide phenomenon. Barbeau says she was informed by the Director of Elections at the Secretary of State's Office that the statewide number of absentee ballot requests is six times higher than a regular year.

"Government doesn't shut down here, we have to figure out a way to help people," said Barbeau. "It's a tough time to be working in government with the political climate the way it is right now. Some days it's a thankless job. I brought in a tray of ballots to the post office yesterday and the gentleman behind the counter said, `I appreciate what you're doing' so it's nice to hear that every now and then".

While the process is labor-intensive, Barbeau hopes that the absentee ballots provide a safer way for citizens to exercise their first amendment rights.

"I've worked here for 26 years, and it's about integrity. We work hard to make sure that we're allowing everyone who has the right to vote to be able to vote, and we treat everyone's ballot with integrity," Barbeau said.


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