Vermont Progressive Party getting unwanted three-way race?

The Vermont Progressive Party chair set out to win her party’s nomination for governor, planning all along not to run against incumbent Democratic Governor Peter Shumlin, and then a funny thing happened: an insurgent write-in candidate almost won.  Now Republicans are up in arms, at least rhetorically, the virtually tied primary vote is headed for a recount, and the governor’s race could become a three-way rough and tumble.

Going into the August 28 Vermont primary, Progressive Party chair Martha Abbott was unopposed on the ballot and seemed a shoe-in to  execute her plan of winning the primary in order to have no Progressive candidate in the general election, since a Progressive would make it a three-way race and presumably increase the chances of Vermont electing a Republican.

But Vermont has been a restive place in recent months and a variety of activists quietly organized write-in campaign that went unnoticed by mainstream politicians and media till just a couple of weeks before the primary.  For their candidate, the activists chose Annette Smith of Danby, herself a well-known Vermont environmental activist who runs the non-profit Vermonters for a Clean Environment (VCE) that is involved in a range of environmental issues, such as chloramine in public water supplies, mercury in dental fillings, and commercial intrusion on natural habitat.

Because of concerns that included the propriety of involving her non-profit organization in politics, even indirectly, Smith did not oppose the write-in campaign, but did not campaign personally.  She also declined to assure the activists that she would be an active candidate, even if she won the primary.

Come primary day, the first official results showed Abbott beating Smith by 371-354.  But her activists told Smith there were mistakes in some towns and when Secretary of State James Condos, a Democrat, checked out Smith’s complaint, he found mistakes that required a new official result – Abbott 371, Smith 370 – whereupon Smith filed on September 6 for a recount.

Vermont law allows a recount only if the vote totals of competing candidates are within 2 per cent of each other.  The original official 371-354 vote had put Smith two votes over the 2 per cent threshold.

Organizing and carrying out the recount in Vermont’s 14 counties will take several days next week and Secretary of State Condos is beginning to worry about getting Vermont’s ballots completed and printed in time to meet the September 22 federal deadline for mailing absentee ballots to military and overseas voters.

Adding another uncertainty to the process, Republican state chair Jack Lindley refused to sign the updates report showing the one-vote difference between Abbott and Smith.  He said the election process had “cast doubt on the validity, accuracy and accountability of the Secretary of State’s Office and the whole election process.”

Condos has admitted that his office misread a fax from a Town Clerk, mistaking a penciled 9 for a zero.  Other counting errors were made at the town level, over which the Secretary of State has no control.   While Lindley suggests the Secretary is partisan, Condos is running for re-election as the candidate of the Democratic, Republican, Progressive, and Working Families Parties.

The counting was further complicated by having to handle a write-in campaign that was unusually strong, a situation with which towns have limited experience.

On top of that, a full executed write-in vote has both the name of the candidate and a filled-in circle on the ballot.  It is thought by some that there were ballots left uncounted because their circles were not filled in. The judicial standard for a valid vote is the intent of the voters: arguably, a ballot that says only “Annette” would be a valid vote for Smith. These factors may complicate the September 13 recount, leading AP writer Dave Gram to comment that this could be “Vermont’s answer to the hanging chad” of Florida 2000 Presidential recount fame.

Republican chair Lindley also said the process “suggests collusion between the Shumlin campaign and the Progressive party nominee, who has miraculously has been declared a winner by a suspect process, who has now announced she didn’t really want the nomination after all; a person who has since declared she will decline a nomination she won in favor of Governor Shumlin.”

In fact, Abbott’s plans were known from the time she accepted the Progressive Party nomination earlier in the summer. If all had gone according to plan, she would have been nominated unopposed, then withdrawn. It was the “stealth campaign” to write in Smith that has led to the errors and confusion.

And if Smith does eventually become the Progressive Party candidate for Governor of Vermont, she is likely to raise some of the hotter issues in the state right now, including industrial wind project that destroy Vermont mountains and basing F-35 bombers n Burlington, where they would render hundreds of Vermont homes uninhabitable.

Governor Shumlin both support basing the F-35 in Burlington.  Shumlin has been supportive if industrial scale wind projects in Vermont, whereas Brock has called for a moratorium on such projects so that their impact may be more carefully studied.   Smith has challenged Shumlin to debate industrial wind projects in the past, but he has refused.