Politics

Vermonters head to the polls in a historic primary election

Voters receive their ballots at a polling place in Burlington on primary day, Tuesday, August 9, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Vermont voters cited competitive races up and down the ballot as motivation to hit the polls on Tuesday — even though turnout tends to lag in the state’s summer primary during a midterm year.

Saint Ambroise Azagoh-Kouadio, also known as “Azzie,” made it to the polls in Essex Junction despite pain from a recent eye surgery because, as he put it, “If you don’t vote, don’t complain.”

The 67-year-old said after living in Vermont for 43 years, he usually knows which candidates tend to win, and they happen to be the candidates he often votes for. Azagoh-Kouadio wouldn’t name names, but said, “I came to fulfill my duty.” 

“I think there’s a really good turnout so far, and the people coming in has been steady,” said Diane Clemens, the presiding officer for the Essex High School polling location. Clemens was overseeing the first primary election since Essex Junction separated from Essex to become Vermont’s newest city earlier this year. 

Parts of the region were also divided in the state’s once-a-decade reapportionment process. Clemens said Tuesday morning that, despite the new district lines, there didn’t seem to be confusion from voters. 

Joyce Touchette, 65, said she was motivated to vote Tuesday by Vermont’s two open congressional races — the state’s first in 16 years — as well as the fight to protect abortion rights. She said she supported Becca Balint in the Democratic primary for Vermont’s sole U.S. House seat and Peter Welch in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. 

“I think that my biggest concern is the turnover of Roe v. Wade and making (sure) that we keep our rights in the state of Vermont,” said Touchette. “I feel those (candidates) aggressively support the pro-choice movement.”

In Winooski, City Clerk Jenny Willingham said residents seemed to be enthusiastic about voting. The city had received almost 500 early or absentee ballots, and within the first two hours of opening the polls, more than 50 people had voted in person.

“There’s always someone in here,” said Willingham, referring to the steady influx of voters.

Thomas Locatell outside the Winooski Senior Center polling location. Photo by Juliet Schulman-Hall/VTDigger.

Thomas Locatell, 64, was focused on local legislative races. Locatell said he biked to the polls specifically to vote for Daisy Berbeco, who is running to represent Winooski in the Vermont House, because she “made a lot of effort to engage people in the city.” 

Locatell said he also came out to vote for Tanya Vyhovsky, an incumbent state representative who is running for Vermont Senate, because “she represents a lot of people who don’t have a voice in the Legislature — because she’s a renter and she’s having trouble to afford living in Vermont, which speaks for a lot of people.”

As a physician, Katie Wells, 40, said she came to the polls in Winooski because she believes health care in the state is underfunded and undersupported. She said she wants to see mental health resources and health access expanded for all people living in Vermont, including migrant workers, and the candidates she voted for share these values. 

Wells also noted Vermont’s record as the only state in the nation that has not sent a woman to the U.S. House or Senate — a designation that is poised to change after this election.

“I’ve been really proud of the election campaigns run by all of the candidates for Congress,” she said. “And I am just excited about people getting out to vote and the opportunity to send the first woman to Congress for our state.” 

Fr. Yvon Royer voted in Winooski on Tuesday. Photo by Juliet Schulman-Hall/VTDigger

When it comes to choosing a candidate, Fr. Yvon Royer, a Catholic priest, said he is more interested in the “heart of the person” and the “respect they have for all of life.” Royer, 59, said that he is not necessarily “party strong,” but rather focused on whether a candidate supports the issues he cares about. He singled out the debate over abortion.

“I know it’s a very hot topic issue,” he said. “But I think all life needs to be respected — women, children, unborn. And I think just all aspects need to be taken into consideration in the conversation.”

Royer said he believes most strongly in Christina Nolan, the Republican former federal prosecutor who is running for U.S. Senate. Nolan has said she supports the federal abortion protections in Roe v. Wade, but believes Vermont’s proposed constitutional amendment to enshrine reproductive rights goes too far.

At the Williston National Guard Armory, Ray Beaudry, a 73-year-old retired school bus driver, said he, too, was focused on supporting pro-life candidates, such as Myers Mermel for U.S. Senate and Ericka Redic for U.S. House, both Republicans.

Voting Republican in Vermont can be “kind of discouraging,” Beaudry said, but it's still important. “I still vote. It’s my duty. And you never know. Sometimes you win by one vote.”

According to local officials, the biggest voting areas in southwestern Vermont received above-average numbers of early and absentee ballots this primary election, but low voter presence at the polls as of Tuesday morning.

The clerk’s office in Rutland City received about 880 absentee ballots from a pool of around 11,600 registered voters.

Bennington received 765 absentee ballots out of about 10,200 registered voters — “a little high for a primary,” according to Town Clerk Cassandra Barbeau.

Barbeau believes the increase in early voting is partly a result of interest in two contested local Democratic races: Bennington County sheriff, where three men are competing to replace incumbent Chad Schmidt, and high bailiff, where a college student is challenging the three-term incumbent.

She said a postcard sent by the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office in June, reminding people of the primary election, also helped.

In Rutland, City Clerk Henry Heck thinks the absentee ballot numbers reflect an effort by voters who are “upset” with the state and national political situation to weigh in.

Voting at area polling places, meanwhile, was relatively slow on Tuesday morning.

Voters trickle into the Bennington firehouse on Tuesday morning. Photo by Tiffany Tan/VTDigger

At the Bennington firehouse, the town’s main voting location, employees on their way to work trickled in alongside retirees and parents with small children in tow.

Some residents said they vote in every primary and general election, while others were drawn by the contested positions up and down the ballot. 

Howard Cohen, 64, came to the firehouse not to support a specific candidate but to exercise an important right. 

“People die around the world for the opportunity to vote,” he said. “We take it for granted.”

Bob Moffit, 75, said he was especially interested in the U.S. House race, as well as the competitive Democratic primaries for lieutenant governor and attorney general.  

Jeanette Voss, 68, said she is “most concerned about the sheriff” contest, particularly because of a rise in violent crimes and drugs in the Bennington area.

Referring to uncertainty about whether the incumbent sheriff still lives in Vermont, Voss said she wants to ensure that the new sheriff is around and knows what’s going on.

Andrew Gilbert, 18, wasn’t drawn to any particular candidate, he said. He came with his mom because she reminded him to vote today.

In Rutland City voting locations, the turnout was noticeably low. Also discernible was the impact of legislative redistricting: Throughout the morning, election officials redirected a good number of voters to other polling places.

Heck, the city clerk, said 3,500 local voters were assigned to new precincts, about 30% of the total registered voters. 

The Goddick Adult Center, on Deer Street, used to be the city’s busiest voting location. Midmorning on Tuesday, it was practically deserted. Only a cluster of campaign yard signs hinted that something was going on inside. 

The center is down to 2,186 assigned voters, since it’s in a district that now shares a state representative with Rutland Town, said Deputy City Clerk Tracy Kapusta. Christ the King School, on South Main Street, has become the city’s biggest polling place, with 3,300 voters.

Most people who were told they’d been reassigned to a new voting location took the news in stride, but a few got visibly upset.

The head election official at Christ the King School, Beth Kiernan, came prepared. She brought three bags of chocolates, which helped pacify a voter who was told she had gone to the wrong location.

“Would you like a piece of chocolate?” Kiernan said she offered the voter. She said the person replied: “Can I have four?”

Voters line up to cast their ballots at a polling place in South Burlington on primary day, Tuesday, August 9, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Paul Heintz contributed reporting.

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Juliet Schulman-Hall

About Juliet

Juliet Schulman-Hall recently graduated from Smith College, majoring in English, minoring in sociology and concentrating in poetry. Most recently, she has worked for MassLive covering abortion and the environment, among other topics. Prior to that, she worked for Ms. Magazine and has done freelance work for PBS's Next Avenue and Arkansas Nonprofit News Network.

Email: [email protected]

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