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'Knee-Deep In Absentee Ballots': The Weeks Before Election Day With Williamstown's Town Clerk

A woman in a surgical mask behind a ballot tabulator
Elodie Reed
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VPR
Williamstown Town Clerk Barbara Graham watches over the ballot tabulator in the gym of the town's middle and high school on Election Day.

This year, Election Day gave way to election season. Ballots were sent to all registered voters in Vermont the last week of September, and every Tuesday since, we checked in with the town clerk in Williamstown.

The town clerk’s office is right on Route 14 in downtown Williamstown. About 3,500 people live there, which makes it the second largest town in Orange County. It’s got a spider web farm. And there’s a scenic gulf, which the town website lists as “one of the greatest attractions.” 

A white town building.
Credit Anna Van Dine / VPR
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VPR
The Williamstown town clerk's office serves about 3,500 residents.

Week one: Tuesday, Oct. 6

Barbara Graham has been Williamstown’s town clerk for nine years. She’s usually wearing a floral-print blouse. And she’s often at odds with some piece of technology:

“This is our brand new copier,” she explained. “I’m not picking up on it. Supposedly, we can fax from that photocopier.”

For Graham, the election began more than a month ago when Williamstown's ballots left the Secretary of State’s office on Sept. 30. And in that first week, she felt prepared for the general election: The town had a special vote by mail in April, and then there was the primary in August. 

The only difference this time around was that the state sent a ballot to every registered voter.

Almost immediately, those ballots started trickling into the town clerk’s office. Some came by mail. Some got dropped in the slot in the door. 

“I think people have their minds made up, by the looks of all these ballots,” Graham said.

A green office with a calendar flipped to October next to a door with a sign for town clerk
Credit Anna Van Dine / VPR
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VPR File
Inside the office where the ballot processing magic happened in the run-up to Election Day.

Vermont gave town clerks the option of processing ballots early. Graham decided not to. 

“Just because I have the worst luck in the world, you know, the machine would just die on me halfway through,” she said. “I’m not even risking it.”

Graham and her assistant town clerk, Susan Lyons, quickly got into a routine. Every day around 11:30 a.m., Graham would drive down the road to the post office to pick up that day’s ballots. And then:

“We’ll open 'em, and enter 'em, and then we have to make sure each envelope is signed,” she said. 

Sorting between ballots and taxes, stamping, shuffling envelopes, letting a ringing phone go to voice mail: This is democracy in a small town in 2020. 

“And we’re just in the beginning of all of this,” Graham said. “The fun begins.” 

Week two: Tuesday, Oct. 13

Assistant town clerk Susan Lyons picked up the phone:

“We’re knee-deep in absentee ballots, so if you could give her a call later that would be great,” she said.

The phone rang again.

“Yeah, welcome to our world,” Graham said.

The trickle of ballots became more of a torrent. Graham had to work on a Sunday to catch up on other town clerk duties. Property transfers, mobile home bills of sale, vital records. 

“It’s been steady,” she said. “We got a huge load today.”

More from VPR: Vermont General Election: Statewide Results

A bunch of ballots had also been returned as undeliverable. Graham said these were people who had moved away, or changed their addresses and didn’t leave a forwarding order. Some of those people got in touch to say they hadn’t received ballots, and Graham sent them back out. 

And then there was one man who called to say he hadn’t gotten his ballot yet. Graham told him she’d sent it, and he should get it soon. A few days later he called again.

“And he said, ‘I think I started a fire with my ballot, can I get another one?’ And I was like, ‘OK.’”

She sent him another one. 

“And I said, ‘Just remember, you only get one ballot cast,’” Graham said. 

At this point, more than 100,000 Vermonters had sent in their ballots statewide. In Williamstown, the routine continued: open, check, stamp, enter. 

Week three: Tuesday, Oct. 20

Like every day, Barbara Graham went to the post office around 11:30 a.m. to pick up the mail. She also had to send off four ballots to people who’d just registered. 

There was a crate of over 50 ballots to pick up the day before, but that day, when Graham opened the mailbox ...

“Oh no! Oh, well, there’s a couple,” she said.

A post office bin full of envelopes
Credit Anna Van Dine / VPR
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VPR
Williamstown's assistant town clerk Susan Lyons helped town clerk Barbara Graham through a busy month in the lead up to Election Day.

Other days were more exciting, like when Graham got back one of the two absentee ballots she’d sent out of the country: one to Canada and the other to Spain.

“To get Spain back was awesome,” she said. “He got it, voted, got it back!”

By then, Graham had gotten 802 ballots back. Three were unsigned and couldn't be counted. 

Statewide, by the end of the week, more than 170,000 Vermonters had voted. That’s more than half the entire turnout in 2016. 

“Two more weeks, we’ve got two more weeks!” Graham said.

Week four: Tuesday, Oct. 27

With one week to go, Barbara Graham was preparing for Election Day. Dealing with ballots was going fine, but she couldn’t get the electronic voting machine to work. It’s an option for voters with disabilities. All polling places are required by law to have one. 

“Right now I can’t even find my county on this thing,” Graham said, laughing. “So I’m just frustrated.”

More from VPR: Ask Bob: How Vermont's 'Mirror Towns' Reflect Statewide Election Results

Other clerks were also having trouble. Between that and the ballots, Graham said she wasn’t alone in feeling overwhelmed:

“We have this email amongst all of us town clerks, and everybody has been frustrated this week. The only one that seems to got it down pat is Barre City.”

Over 200,000 Vermonters had voted statewide. 

“One week, thank God, one week!” Graham said.

Week five: Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 3

The big day arrived. 

“My alarm went off at 4:30,” Graham said. “I’m like, ‘Let’s get this going here, I’m ready to go!’”

In Williamstown, the day came with snow. Voters walked into the high school gym in boots, coats, hats and with a few exceptions, face masks. Like almost everywhere in Vermont, the polls were open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Barbara Graham supervised the tabulator and handed out stickers.

All morning, Graham and her assistant clerk Susan Lyons fed 1,173 absentee ballots into the tabulator. Add the in-person votes, and 1,430 Williamstown voters had cast ballots by the middle of the day. This was on track to break the record set in 2012, when over 1,600 residents voted.

“I definitely think, with 1,430, until 7 p.m., we’ll definitely go over that,” Graham said.

A man in a mask going out a door reading official polling place
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
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VPR File
Mike Nelson was one of the record-breaking 1,882 Williamstown residents to cast a vote this Election Day. Nelson said he voted in person Tuesday because it felt more personal. He and Town Clerk Barbara Graham got into a chat about Keto diets over the tabulator machine.

The tabulator worked just fine. So did the machine for voters with disabilities. 

All in all, close to 100 ballots had come back undeliverable. Six were defective. A total of 1,882 votes had been cast, breaking the town’s record.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Anna Van Dine @annasvandine.

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