Editor’s note: The following story went to press before a judge ruled on the election and has since been updated.
A superior court judge ruled yesterday that a ballot referring to Pam Loranger by her maiden name was indeed intended for the republican candidate, resulting in a dead heat between she and fellow challenger John Nagle III in the Chittenden 9-2 District primary. The two candidates will now face off in a run-off election Sept. 10.
Judge Robert Mello’s ruling comes a day after he presided over a hearing focused on a recount of the district’s Republican ballots. Nagle petitioned for the recount – held at the Chittenden Superior Court Monday morning – after finding out he lost to the write-in candidate by just three votes.
After the initial ballot count on primary night, Nagle had 174 votes and Loranger had 165. The Colchester town clerk’s official tally Wednesday morning put Loranger at 177, three votes ahead of Nagle. The close margin allowed Nagle to petition for the recount.
The recount committee tallied 174 votes for Nagle and 173 for Loranger, with one ballot that could not be decided on. The ballot in question had Loranger’s maiden name of Karr written instead of her legal name. The ballot was sent to Judge Mello for advisement.
Per state law, each candidate in the district, including Pat Brennan, had to produce a list of 10 names of representatives within 48 hours to participate in the recount.
During the recount on Monday morning, four committees were created to sort ballots and review the work from the first count, according Anne Williams, Chittenden County Clerk. Each committee read the ballots multiple times and doubled checked the work of the other committees.
She added the committees were split up as even as possible to have fair representation from each candidate.
“Every table had one representative from Loranger and one representative from Nagle,” Williams explained. “We were a little bit short [on] Nagle representatives to have two at every table, but every [table] had at least one.”
At the hearing on the questionable ballot Tuesday afternoon, Loranger and Nagle both presented their cases as to why the judge should or should not allow the ballot to be cast in favor of Loranger. Also present by phone for the hearing was Attorney Janssen Willhoit on behalf of the Vt. Republican Party as an “interested party” in the case.
“The party doesn’t have any preference of who comes out on top,” assured Willhoit. “The Republican Party is interested to make sure that all votes are rightfully counted in [the] primary.”
Nagle objected to Willhoit’s presence at the hearing.
“No one contacted me saying they were going to be doing this, so I disagree with them being involved,” Nagle said to the court. “They’ve ostracized me from the get-go, I want to wash my hands of them.”
Mello allowed Willhoit to audit the hearing, but would not allow him to participate or present any kind of evidence.
Mello began the hearing by stating that the court’s decision would be governed by a Supreme Court decision from 1947, which stated that if the intent of the voter can be determined with “reasonable certainty,” then the “effect must be given to that intent,” and the vote counted.
Loranger gave her testimony to the court first. She said the voter who’s ballot was in question approached her husband and admitted his mistake. Loranger said the voter had known her from a prior work relationship when she worked as a liaison for a salon between 1982 and 1985.
“I submit that the error on the part of the voter was an honest mistake made in the act of voting for a write-in candidate, known to the voter more familiarly as Pam Karr,” Loranger said. “I was well-known as Pam Karr, aka PK, by my contemporaries for 35 years.”
She added that a run-off election with just her name and Nagle’s on the ballot would keep the whole process fair, arguing that the anonymity of the voter had been compromised. That would also take out the confusion of the write-in process for voters, she added.
Nagle countered her testimony by arguing that anyone writing in her name as a candidate should have written the correct last name.
“All of her signs around town, it says to write in her name,” Nagle said, adding that in 2014 she also ran as Pam Loranger, not Karr. “It would be hard to miss by anybody when you drive around seeing all of her signs for ‘Write in Pam Loranger.’”
Despite the ruling Wednesday, Nagle continued to question the legitimacy of the initial vote total. “An investigation needs to be done in Colchester [on] how she went from 165 to 177 … to a tie,” he wrote in a text message to the Sun.
Reached Thursday, Loranger said she never had a chance to see why those three votes weren’t counted, but said she is looking forward to the run-off election.
“I’m appreciative that the judge heard my arguments and that he decided to allow the vote,” Loranger said. “I think, obviously, it was the right thing to do, and we’ll let the voters of Colchester ultimately decide who wins that primary.”