County towns hunt for spacious polling sites

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BENNINGTON — Town officials in Shaftsbury and other county towns are eyeing the facilities where residents vote for the ability to maintain social distancing during the coronavirus epidemic.

In a preemptive move, Shaftsbury voting has been shifted to the town highway garage, which is larger than the traditional voting place, a firehouse, and allows more spacing, Town Clerk Marlene Hall said.

An announcement posted by Select Board Chairman Tim Scoggins on the town website said in part, "In order to facilitate social distancing at the polls during the primary election in August and the general election in November, the polling location has been moved from the firehouse on Buck Hill Road to the new DPW garage at 526 North Road."

Shaftsbury residents also are encouraged to vote by absentee ballot and avoid the polls entirely. Absentee ballots can be requested through the Secretary of State's My Voter Page, or residents can call or email the clerk's office to request a ballot.

Ballots will be mailed or picked up curbside at Cole Hall, at 61 Buck Hill Road, according to the notice. Absentee ballots are not distributed until 45 day before each election.

"This is still a work in progress," Hall said, "but I am planning on keeping my poll workers six feet apart as well as moving the voting booths at least six feet apart; requiring masks or face coverings to vote (or vote in a special designated area for those who cannot or will not wear a face mask)."

She added that pens will be cleaned between voters.

"We will also be encouraging absentee voting, as will the state," Hall said. "We want everyone to vote, and we want everyone, including my poll workers to feel safe."

Changes weighed

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"We are waiting for [additional] guidance from the Secretary of State," Bennington Town Clerk Cassandra Barbeau said this week. "He is in discussion with the governor on how best to proceed."

She added, "I can't think of a space that is bigger than the fire facility [the current town voting site]. I expect there will be a voter education campaign for the primary to educate voters on how to request a ballot, and of course, there is still talk about ballots being mailed to all active voters for the General Election. Time will tell what the virus will bring. Additionally, the state is providing personal protective equipment for election workers."

Barbeau said she is not sure whether additional steps might be required in North Bennington, where voters cast ballots at the village trustees meeting space at 2 Depot St., which is not a large area in comparison to the Bennington Fire Facility on River Street.

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In Arlington, Clerk Robin Wilcox said this week, "I am not sure yet, as we usually use the high school gym. It's plenty big enough; just not sure about the November election with school being in session and all. No decisions have been made on that yet."

Dorset Town Clerk Sandra Pinsonault said voting location issues haven't surfaced as yet.

"Not at this time," she said. "The school gym happens to as big as it gets here in Dorset."

"We have not moved our polling location," said Manchester Town Clerk Anita Sheldon. "We are discussing possibilities that would encourage participation while practicing social distancing. We will also be encouraging voters to vote by early/absentee ballot."

"There have been no changes in Sunderland," said Rose Keough, town clerk in Sunderland, where voting is normally scheduled at the municipal offices.

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Secretary of State

Will Senning, director of the Elections Division in the office of Secretary of State Jim Condos, said local officials are definitely are considering issues surrounding the August primary and November general elections, as well as any voting that might come up this year in a special town or school election.

"I've been fielding multiple calls every day for the last six weeks," he said.

Links on the Secretary of State's website provide information on election requirements for 2020, he said, including on some of the special provisions or waivers allowed this year only because of the epidemic.

Those include simplifying the process of receiving an absentee ballot; allowing voting sites outdoors and drive-by voting locations, and allowing candidates to forego gathering voter signatures for nomination.

In addition, municipal decisions normally requiring a floor meeting or floor vote can be changed to a vote by Australian ballot by the local governing board and won't require a townwide floor vote, as is normally the case.

Emergency state legislation passed in March in response to the epidemic also allows communities to temporarily postpone scheduled votes during 2020.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien


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