August 20th, 2019

Senate Perspectives: Eat Your Peas

By Joe Benning
State Senator, Caledonia District

“But Mom, I don’t like peas,” said my 5-year-old self to my mother. “Eat them anyway,” came her response. “But Mom, they don’t taste good,” I pled, hoping to gain some sympathy. She replied with a sympathy thrust of her own: “Be thankful you have them, there are starving people in the world, you know.” “Well, they can have my peas,” I retorted with juvenile logic. “Eat those peas,” came her stern response. “But why?” Her voice rose a notch: “Because I’m your mother and I said so!” That pretty much ended the discussion.

That 55-year-old conversation popped into my head recently as I listened to a rather tortuous debate on the floor of Vermont’s House of Representatives. The question was whether the House should exercise its constitutional authority to hold a second recount requested by defeated House candidate Susan Hatch Davis. Logic was at war with naked power. It was a difficult thing to watch.

The facts are not all that complicated. In the election of 2016, Republican newcomer Bob Frenier beat five-term Progressive incumbent Hatch Davis by eight votes in a six-town legislative district in Orange County. Hatch Davis asked for a recount. The recount was conducted by vote tabulator under the supervision of the county clerk. In the recount, Frenier’s margin of victory shrank to seven votes. Hatch Davis then brought a claim for a second recount or a new election in Orange Superior Court. The judge rejected her claim and affirmed the election’s results. The Secretary of State certified Frenier’s election, he was sworn in and he took his seat in the House.

But Hatch Davis had one more option: appealing directly to the House of Representatives, which under the Vermont Constitution has authority to “judge of the elections and qualifications of its members” pursuant to Chapter II, Section 14. The House decided to take it up, and here’s where one is reminded of having to swallow something you don’t like while there are starving people in the world.

The issue came before the House Government Operations committee, which decided it would not take up Hatch Davis’s rather unusual claim that so-called “defective ballots” should be reviewed. That was really the only substantive claim she had. With that eliminated, only vague possibilities remained. The committee chair, Democrat Maida Townsend, surmised: “We know if the visual inspection is not paired with the tabulator, it is possible that votes may have been missed.” One would therefore anticipate that the committee would take testimony from the people who actually oversaw the insertion of ballots into the tabulator to see if there was evidence of such. But they weren’t invited. Not surprisingly, a rather contentious committee discussion then broke along party lines. The Republicans asked: “So then why are we doing this?” The Democrats’ response can be whittled down to: “Because we can.” With a dominant Democratic majority, the decision was made to go forward recommending the House conduct a recount and Republican objections were for naught.

Then it got interesting. The town clerks who oversaw the recount, denied opportunity to testify, fired off a letter claiming Townsend was wrong. Hardworking town clerks from around the state expressed anger that their integrity was being questioned. Court certification was apparently not relevant to the discussion. Secretary of State Jim Condos, himself a Democrat, shook his head in dismay at the bad precedent being established by the House deciding to hold a recount simply because it had that power.

In the middle of over five hours of House debate, Representative Kurt Wright posed a simple question. “Madam Speaker, I know we can do this, but the question is should we?” In the House gallery my mind suddenly wandered back to a plate of squishy, canned peas. Wright’s fair question was answered with blatant politics, as the overwhelming Democratic majority decided to press ahead with yet another recount in the absence of a reason to do so. With no specific evidence of wrongdoing, their decision impugns the integrity of those town clerks who conducted a fair election and subsequent recount. It dismisses a court opinion, and goes against the certification of the Secretary of State. Most importantly, it sets a terrible precedent whereby future legislatures will be unable to refuse any disgruntled candidate who asks the legislature for relief when there is no justification for doing so.

Shortly before she died, my mother said she regretted forcing me to eat those peas. I obediently ate them in silence, but she confessed it was hard for her to watch me do so while tears streamed down my face.

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