By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Secretary of State Deb Markowitz said turnout at last Tuesday’s primary election was among the lowest ever, though she expects as much as 70 percent of the state’s 440,000 registered voters to cast ballots during the general election on Nov. 4.
Markowitz, who herself faces re-election this fall, touched upon balloting, voter education and a variety of other topics during an interview at the Addison Independent on Thursday. Markowitz also acknowledged that after 10 years in office, this may be her final bid for secretary of state.
While the results were not yet official as of late last week, Markowitz believes the final returns will show the primary election of 2008 could reveal a historical low in terms of turnout. She cited weather and a lack of compelling races as reasons why most people chose not to vote.
Indeed only the Democrats’ ballot featured statewide primary races — for congressional representative and lieutenant governor. There were no races on the Republican, Progressive and Liberty Union ballots.
“Generally speaking, turnout gets driven by the top of the ticket, and there just wasn’t anything there,” Markowitz said. “It’s not surprising that people stayed home. On top of it, we had thunderstorms during the prime voting times before work, and so people said, ‘Do I want to brave the lightning for a ballot where there is no contested races?’”
But Markowitz stressed she believes democracy is alive and well in Vermont, in spite of the low primary turnout.
“We still believe that November is going to be a very busy election,” Markowitz said. “There is unprecedented interest in the presidential race. We’re getting more new voter registration requests than we have in the past years.”
Indeed, Vermont added approximately 25,000 new voters to its checklist between January and July, according to Markowitz.
Vermont spent approximately $200,000 printing ballots for the four political organizations that qualified for “major party” status for this year’s primary. The Republicans, Democrats, Liberty Union and Progressives all got the requisite 5 percent of the vote in the prior general election to secure major party status and their own primary ballot.
That meant the four parties were due their own ballot last week, which had to be made available at the various polling places throughout the state. With low turnout, the vast majority of those ballots went unused.
Markowitz is concerned about the resulting waste of state resources.
She noted that voters during the 2006 primary selected 170 Liberty Union ballots and 444 Progressive ballots. Still, hundreds of thousands of those ballots had to be printed and sent to polling places throughout the state.
She explained the state cannot currently print fewer of the smaller-party ballots because it could compromise voter privacy laws.
“That’s a lot of waste, and the question is, what’s the benefit to democracy in holding a primary?” Markowitz said. “The reason we hold primaries for Republicans and Democrats is because by and large we know one of them will be our elected leader, and those parties are big, so that we know that there is not an easy, democratic way for the party (through a caucus) to figure out who should be the standard bearer.”
Markowitz said primaries were established as a means of preventing the leaders of a dominant party from picking their own favorite from among several hopefuls to run in the general election. That danger simply does not exist in other parties, she said.
“I think it’s probably time to reconsider how we do our primaries,” Markowitz said. “I think what we want to consider is the threshold for having the state run a primary. We wouldn’t shut anyone out from being on the ballot — the Progressive and Liberty Union parties could caucus and say who their candidates are. I would even say that if they have a contest, that we do run a primary for them. But it’s when they have these uncontested ballots that (it becomes wasteful).”
While Markowitz believes smaller political organizations should continue to be entitled to major party status by getting 5 percent of the vote in the prior election, she believes such parties should be able to opt-in, or out, of the primary election depending on whether they have a contest that can’t be resolved through caucuses.
“I’m not sure we want the Democrats or the Republicans to have that ability (to opt-out of primaries) because we don’t want to return to those smoke-filled rooms” where decisions are made by a few party leaders, Markowitz said.
Vermont’s secretary of state is pleased to see a lot of enthusiasm about this year’s election — particularly on the part of the state’s youngest voters.
“Our young people are really engaged,” Markowitz said.
She noted that when she began in her job 10 years ago, one out of every five Vermonters who cast ballots was between the ages of 18 and 25. During the last presidential election, it was one in four. Markowitz anticipates an even more youthful turnout this November.
“I think the young people are going to make a difference in the election, and it’s going to affect our turnout numbers overall,” Markowitz said.
MARKOWITZ’S NEXT STEP
Markowitz served notice she is thinking about winding down her career as the state’s top elections officer.
Her competition this year includes Warren Republican Eugene Bifano.
“It is still fun, but I have been here 10 years and it is probably someone else’s turn soon,” Markowitz said. “I am really focusing on how do I institutionalize some of the things we’ve brought in. A big focus of mine during the next two years will be access to public records and public meetings, and the need to have an ombudsman. Our current system doesn’t work.”
The state, Markowitz said, needs to have a better system in place of fielding media inquiries when a reporter is shut out of a governmental meeting or denied documents.
“The question is, how do we put teeth in our open meeting and public records laws so that it is a meaningful protection for the public.”
Other topics discussed by Markowitz included:
• The spread of vote tabulating machines throughout the state. An increasing number of communities are acquiring such machines, in recognition of their accuracy and timeliness in counting tallies on election night. Markowitz said the “optical scanning” capabilities of the voting machines have come in very handy — particularly in the recount of the 2006 state auditor’s race. Then-incumbent state Auditor Randy Brock was initially declared the winner by around 200 votes, though a recount revealed that challenger and current Auditor Tom Salmon had won by around the same margin.
“What made the difference was clerical errors in hand counting towns,” Markowitz said. “It’s the hand counting where you do, at times, get some errors — particularly when you have some large checklists and are counting into the night.”
That said, Markowitz realizes vote counting machines aren’t for every community.
“We don’t recommend that a community gets a tabulator until their checklist gets to be 1,000 or so,” Markowitz said. “Most of our communities aren’t going to have that population and therefore, hand counting makes sense.”
• Mobile polling. The Secretary of State’s office will conduct a pilot project this fall taking election ballots to nursing homes in more than 20 communities to reach people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to vote. None of those communities in this year’s pilot project are in Addison County, according to Markowitz.
• Democracy programs for youth. Markowitz said she was pleased at the extent to which schools and students are participating in democracy studies advanced by the secretary of state’s office. Mock elections, civics and political debates are among the democracy initiatives now commonly practiced in many of the state’s schools, including several in Addison County.
“This generation of kids really has opinions,” Markowitz said.
• Greater efficiency in records keeping. Markowitz is pleased that her office is now able to advise state agencies on what records they should keep and where/how such documents should be archived. The state is building a new archive facility in Middlesex, which should greatly help matters, according to Markowitz.