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Where Do All the Lonely Ballots Go? 

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This past Tuesday, when I exercised my 19th Amendment-guaranteed right to vote, I couldn't help but notice the surfeit of ballots offered to me. There was one for the Republican slate, one for the Progressive, and one for the Democratic. I took the three ballots, each printed on crisp card stock and, as instructed, filled out only one.

After I made my selections (it was easy — I wrote myself in for every position), I fed my finished ballot into the secret ballot machine and discarded the other two. As I walked out into the sunny afternoon, I thought to myself, "Gee, golly. Where do all those extra ballots go?" Follow-up question: "WWBMD? — What would Bill McKibben do?"

It sure seemed like an awful lot of waste. But what do I know? Perhaps they take all the unused ballots and turn them into fuel for a wood-chip boiler at a homeless shelter. Or maybe they use them to line kitty cages at the animal shelter. Not knowing the answer, but being deemed a reporter, I figured it was my duty to find out.

According to an unnamed state election official (who really should have let me use his/her name since this info is totally innocuous), because of Vermont's open primary system for statewide elections, it is necessary to give each registered voter three ballots. Unlike in national primary elections where election officials ask which ballot you'd like, during statewide races, election officials are not allowed to inquire as to your party preference. It's a privacy issue. And, according to this unnamed official, some people get pissed when they have to ask for a specific party's ballot. Apparently no one wants to admit that they voted Republican. I kid.

Election officials are simply instructed to hand you three ballots and check your name off the list. Then you make the choice which one to fill out when you sit down to vote. 

The two ballots that you don't used get chucked in a tall cardboard box. They are then collected into a sealed ballot bag and stored for 22 months in some musty closet. Ballots that are only used for local elections are stored for 90 days. 

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I wonder if you can get one of these sweet ballot bags at Macy's. So cute!

After the extra ballots are stored for the prescribed period of time, it is up to the town or city clerk to determine what becomes of them. Some give them to kindergarten classes to use as scrap paper. Some just dump them in the town recycling bins.

Here's a sample of ballot disposal methods from a random smattering of Vermont cities and towns:

In WIlliston, says assistant town clerk Kathy Smardon, the unused ballots (those handed out but not written on) are stored and then shredded and removed by a paper shredding company. The unopened packages of ballots are all recycled, unless the elementary schools ask for them for art classes or civics lessons, Smardon says.

In Vergennes, all of the ballots are recycled after they've been stored for 22 months, says city clerk Joan Devine. They're put in a bin in the back of the office and taken out with the other recyclables. Nothing fancy about it.

In Westford, all the unused and unopened ballots get shredded by Rover's North — the North American distributor for Land Rover parts, which is based in Westford. The shredded ballots then become packing material for the company's car parts. "In a sense they're being recycled," says Westford town clerk Nanette Rogers, "because they're used to ship parts all over the world."

In Barre City, the ballots are also recycled, says city clerk Carol Dawes. That's a lot of recycling, considering that only 1202 people out of 6937 registered voters in Barre actually voted. That means a lot of extra ballots. Here's why:

In Vermont, each town or city is given ballots for half the number of registered voters who live there. So in Barre, the Secretary of State's office sent the town about 3500 ballots per party. That's more than 10,000 ballots. Since 1202 people voted, that  means almost 9000 ballots will be recycled. 

In Williston, 1770 people voted, while the town received 7500 ballots. In Westford, the town was sent 2100, while just 632 people voted. The numbers were similar in Vergennes, where 412 people voted and 2100 ballots were delivered.

Among those four municipalities, that's nearly 18,000 extra ballots that will be shredded, recycled or made into hamster cage liners. Each of those ballots costs between 20 and 25 cents to print, according to the state elections office. Now, hold on, kids. I'm gonna throw some math at you:

If we go by the more conservative cost of 20 cents, that means just with those four towns, the state spent $3600 in ballots alone. The cost of printing primary ballots for the entire state is in the neighborhood of $132,000.

The state determines how many ballots to print based on how many people are registered to vote in Vermont. At present, there are about 440,000 on the state's voter rolls. The state prints ballots for 50 percent of the statewide checklist per party. So, that means 220,000 ballots were printed per party for a total of 660,000 ballots. (660,000 x 20 cents = $132,000)

This year, the turnout was better than expected for a nonpresidential primary. About 23 percent of registered voters exercised their Constitutional right. If you're picking up what I'm putting down, that means that 560,000 ballots, costing roughly $112,000, were trashed. 

This is a lot of money to throw down the tubes, especially when the government is hard up for cash and has to resort to cracking into children's piggy banks and selling its gold jewelry just to break even. Wait, that's me.

Anyway, I don't know how this can be avoided. Perhaps by experimenting with electronic voting systems. Perhaps by purging the voter rolls to get an accurate count of registered voters. Or perhaps by turning our happy republic into a dictatorship. At least we'd be spared the cost of those extra ballots.

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Lauren Ober

Lauren Ober

Lauren Ober was a Seven Days staff writer from 2009-2011.

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