House OKs recount of Orange House race

MONTPELIER — The Vermont House approved a resolution Wednesday after hours of pointed debate that calls for a recount in the Orange-1 House district race between Robert Frenier and Susan Hatch Davis that was decided by seven votes.

Frenier, a Republican who was seated as a House member last month, beat Hatch Davis, a five-term Progressive incumbent, by an eight-vote margin on Election Day. A recount sought by Hatch Davis narrowed Frenier’s victory to a seven-vote margin, but was certified by a judge.

Rep. Robert Frenier

Rep. Robert Frenier

Hatch Davis remained unconvinced, however, and sought another recount, which was rejected by Orange County Superior Court Judge Mary Miles Teachout. Hatch Davis then contested the election with the House, which has the authority to “judge” the election and qualifications of its members under the Vermont Constitution.

The House approved the resolution recommended by the House Government Operations Committee on a 76 to 59 vote. A special panel of 23 House members will now be created to conduct a second recount and create rules and procedures governing the recount.

Rep. Maida Townsend, D-South Burlington, the chairwoman of the Government Operations Committee, told her House colleagues the committee’s resolution seeking a new recount is about ensuring accuracy in the election.

“The fundamental issue here is accuracy. We stand with the town clerks of this state with a laser focus in wanting to ensure that all legal ballots are counted,” she said, noting the committee agrees with town clerks that ballots previously ruled defective should not be included.

The Municipal Clerks’ and Treasurers’ Association disagrees, however. The group released a statement Tuesday saying the integrity of its members, as well as the election workers they oversee, will be undermined if the recount recommended by the House Government Operations Committee was approved.

Townsend noted the committee voted on partisan lines to approve sending the resolution to the full House, but said House members on both sides of the question want the same result.

Rep. Maida Townsend

Rep. Maida Townsend

“Differing conclusions in no way equate to differing integrity,” she said.

Townsend said there is precedent for a recount ordered by the House. It has occurred at least three times before, including two times in 1985.

Rep. Anne Donahue, R- Northfield, said the House should only consider a recount by the House when there is some clear indication that something went wrong.

“We must have a threshold of evidence of impropriety or fraud if we’re going to exercise that power. We must have a reasonable basis to believe that something went wrong and that something that went wrong affected the outcome. Without that, every person who loses an election can come before this body,” she said. “We have to have standards.”

“ Madam Speaker, the emperor has no clothes here,” Donahue added.

But Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, maintained that the House does not have “any implication of impropriety or fraud” to act.

“ When a petitioner brings a question before us, it is our duty to answer that question. It is our duty to review all the facts,” she said.

Rep. Ron Hubert, R-Milton, rejected the position of Democrats that the recount is not politically motivated.

“If anyone doesn’t think this is a partisan display, they’re sadly mistaken,” Hubert said.

Rep. Patti Lewis, R-Berlin, delivered a minority report on behalf of the four Republican members of the Government Operations Committee. She said the majority “would like you to believe the process may have been flawed.” But Lewis said the facts surrounding the Election Day count and the recount offer no evidence of anything amiss, before urging the body to reject the resolution.

“It is our duty to do the right thing. The honest thing. The correct thing,” Lewis said. “It sheds doubt that every vote matters. It sheds doubt that your vote is your voice.”

The House rejected, on an 11-to-125 vote, an amendment from Progressive Rep. Sandy Haas, of Rochester, that would have counted defective ballots that were not counted on Election Day or during the recount.

Donahue offered an amendment requiring the Government Operations Committee to bring the rules and procedures back to the House for approval before the recount takes place. It was approved on a voice vote.

Rep. Anne Donahue

Rep. Anne Donahue

Donahue’s amendment was offered after Townsend admitted that the Government Operations Committee had wide latitude when conducting the recount. “ We are free … to put aside statute and create our own rules,” she told the chamber.

Republican Rep. Don Turner, the House minority leader from Milton, told reporters at a news conference before the debate that he feared Democrats might manipulate the recount rules to overturn Frenier’s election.

“If this recount passes there are no rules that this body has to follow,” Turner said. “We are concerned that you can only count these votes the same way so many times and come up with the same results. That’s already been done. We’re afraid that different rules might change the outcome of this election, and therefore, we are asking for our members and fellow legislators to support the will of the people and confirm Robert Frenier as the winner.”

Another Republican-backed amendment that would have replaced the committee’s version called for the House to affirm Frenier’s victory. It was defeated on a 52-85 vote.

A final amendment to make the speaker of the House the presiding officer of the recount and to follow state statute for election recounts was also rejected. It was defeated on a 52 to 84 vote.

The lengthy debate Wednesday was punctuated by numerous rule challenges and interrogations of fellow members. It highlighted the deep divide and mistrust between majority Democrats and minority Republicans.

Townsend at one point defended her committee’s actions and promised to “continue to be as careful and diligent as it has been to date.”

“There is no reason to believe that you have a rogue committee on your hands,” Townsend said.

But Turner made clear in his comments to reporters Wednesday that Republicans did not trust the Democratic majority.

“It’s unfortunate that the Democratic majority is using this Washington-style partisan politics here in Vermont, rather than resolving this issue the Vermont way, which would be to believe in what has already been done,” he said. “It’s the process. It’s the integrity of the electoral process that’s been questioned for the last five weeks in this body when we have election officials all across this state, including our town clerks and treasurers, including our judiciary, that have already confirmed the outcome.”

Turner also issued a threat if Democrats overturn Frenier’s election. He said Republicans would challenge each race from the general election where the winners were elected by fewer votes than there were defective ballots. Turner said he believed there to be about seven such elections in the House last November.

neal.goswami @timesargus.com

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