UNDER FIRE: A top GOP leader says Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger may be attempting to sway the outcome of a $67.4 million school budget vote.
By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog
The City of Burlington’s decision not to send absentee ballots for the upcoming school budget election has raised serious questions about voter disenfranchisement.
Now the vice chairman of the Vermont Republican Party has gone a step further, asking if Mayor Mario Weinberger is attempting to massage the election’s outcome.
“Why would he do this except to fix the outcome of the vote?” Brady Toensing told Vermont Watchdog.
Toensing said he is outraged after a public records request turned up a series of communications between the secretary of state’s office and elected officials in multiple towns.
In particular, Toensing cites a May 12 exchange between Burlington City Attorney Eileen Blackwood and William Senning, director of elections for the secretary of state’s office.
In the exchange, Blackwood seeks affirmation for the city’s decision to withhold absentee ballots even though “voters have requested that the city send out an absentee ballot to every voter who requested one for the March meeting.”
Senning replied, “My office would consider this a separate election and agree the (chief administrative officer) is not required to send absentee ballots for this vote to those people who requested absentee ballots for the (March) annual meeting.”
However, when the city announced its decision two days later as reported in the Burlington Free Press, public records released from Toensing show Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos dispatched an email to Senning asking, “Is this correct?”
In fact, Senning told clerks in other towns that their reconsideration votes required them to automatically send out absentee ballots.
In a March 6 email sent to Richmond Town Clerk Linda Parent following the defeat of that town’s school budget, Senning wrote, “It is the advice of our office that you send absentee ballots to anyone who requested them for the initial vote. This is not clearly mandated in the law, but it has been our consistent advice.”
The secretary of state’s official website offers similar guidance, noting that courts would likely conclude “the obligation to send a ballot to a voter would continue until the voting on the issue is complete.” The site says “reconsideration is really an extension of Town Meeting.”
In recent months, Richmond, Barre City, Jericho and Underhill automatically sent absentee ballots for their reconsideration elections, making Burlington’s move an anomaly.
Toensing said the anomaly is not accidental, noting that the 1,539 absentee votes cast on Town Meeting Day in Burlington constitute more than 20 percent of the 7,542 votes cast.
“The mayor dispatched one of the city’s attorneys to parse the law to come up with an argument for not sending out absentee ballots to what amounted to 20 percent of the voters in the last election,” he said.
He denounced Weinberger’s actions as “shameful,” adding that the mayor is violating Vermont’s longstanding policy on sending absentee ballots.
Toensing also filed a public records request to the mayor’s office seeking any communications regarding absentee ballots and the revote of a budget.
Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of the national elections-integrity group True the Vote, told Vermont Watchdog that absentee ballots serve a critical function in ensuring all voters’ voices can be heard.
“To willfully deny voters that opportunity is an abuse of power that should not be tolerated,” she said.
“If city officials broke the law, then the citizens who were denied their opportunity to vote should take swift action.”
However, Engelbrecht added that if city officials have discretion on the issue, voters may have no legal recourse.
“If city officials have the discretion whether or not to send absentee ballots, then as frustrating as it may be, unless and until the law is changed, it’s a moot point.”
Contact Bruce Parker at email@example.com