Absentee ballots raise eyebrows in Castleton
By Darren Marcy
Staff Writer | January 18,2014
CASTLETON — The town clerk’s office has been calling some voters to see if they would like to receive an absentee ballot in advance of the Jan. 28 special bond vote, raising some questions about the practice.
But Will Senning, director of elections with the Secretary of State’s office, said the town clerk’s actions are legal and a common practice in Vermont.
Town Manager Charles Jacien said he sought an opinion from the Secretary of State’s Office in a Jan. 8 email in which he said he had received complaints about the practice.
“The recent complaints are, ... the clerk is taking it upon herself to call people to ask them if they would like to vote absentee,” Jacien wrote. “From what I understand, this has never been done in the past. I am hearing complaints of undue influence on the voting process.”
In Castleton’s heightened political tensions, rumors began circulating, and at Monday’s Select Board meeting, resident Joe Bruno asked the Select Board about it.
“I have heard that the clerk is calling residents and asking them if they want an absentee ballot,” Bruno said. “I’m wondering why I haven’t been called.”
Select Board chairman Thomas Ettori told Bruno he’d have to ask the town clerk.
Katy Thornblade, the town clerk, said Jacien — or anyone — could have just asked.
“Charles never bothered to call me and ask me,” Thornblade said.
Thornblade said the calls were made to residents who had voted absentee before.
“About half of them didn’t know there was going to be a vote and every single one of them thanked us profusely,” she said.
Senning said the practice is routine.
He said voters can request absentee ballots each year for all regularly scheduled elections — town meeting, primary and general elections.
When a voter does that, it’s normal for a town clerk to call those people and tell them about a special election and offer to send them an absentee ballot.
“She called and asked me at that time if she should send absentee ballots to those who requested them for the other elections,” Senning said. “Our advice from our office is, it’s OK to call those folks and ask them.”
In addition, when someone requests an absentee ballot for a vote, that person should be sent an absentee ballot for a reconsideration vote, Senning said.
“That’s what the clerk was doing,” Senning said. “She was not, as was perceived, just calling people. She was calling people who had an absentee ballot request in.”
Thornblade said she felt vindicated and she knew they weren’t doing anything wrong.
“Our reason for doing it was based on being fair,” Thornblade said. “This was an effort to make it more fair and a more open election.”
Jacien, after talking with Senning, said the town’s political climate contributed to the situation.
“With the past history and current suspicion, it raised some eyebrows here,” Jacien said.
Absentee ballots are available for the Jan. 28 bond vote in which town voters will be asked whether the town should pursue a bond for $860,000 to renovate the town office building at 556 Main St.