By Matthew Strong
Last week Secretary of State Jim Condos was on the radio program “The Morning Drive with Marcus & Kurt” on WVMT to discuss voting access bill S.15, and a caller revealed potentially explosive allegations of voter fraud.
“In Middlebury I own an apartment building. There were about 25 (unclaimed) ballots by all the mailboxes in the hallway and the college kids scooped them all up, voted them all, and put them in the mailbox. So, don’t tell me its [fraud] not happening!,” the caller alleged.
Condos responded to the allegation by recommending the caller reach out to his office or the Attorney General with evidence, and that the alleged incident would potentially be a crime. But, as several Town and City Clerks noted during official testimony before Vermont House and Senate Committees, there is no way to detect, let alone trace and prosecute, the kind of fraud described by the Middlebury landlord.
While election officials can provide examples of being able to catch someone who tries to vote multiple times under their own name (John Doe tried to vote twice as John Doe), it is nearly impossible to catch somebody who votes multiple times under other people’s names with other people’s ballots.
The allegations come as the Vermont legislature is working on a bill to make the pandemic-related statewide “vote-by-mail” procedure permanent. S.15, if enacted would allow VT to join 5 other states who have predominantly vote by mail systems, but without the safeguards these other states have implemented that allow their systems to work. S.15 passed the Senate by a vote of 27-3.
Vermont broke its voter turnout record in 2020, and proponents of vote-by-mail cite the ease of the temporary-to-the-pandemic vote by mail protocol as the primary cause and want to make it permanent. 372,366 of 506,312 registered Vermont voters, or 73.5 percent, cast ballots in the 2020 general election. Only 90,513 people voted in person, 280,455 chose to use the mailed ballot (either absentee or mailed without request). Approximately mailed 133,946 ballots went unused.
In light of these new allegations, important questions become apparent. If it is so easy for college students (or anyone else) to “scoop up” unclaimed or unwanted ballots, fill them out, and mail them in -- undetected by election officials – it becomes apparent that nobody really has any idea how many of those 280,455 ballots mailed in are legitimate and how many are not.
The standard talking point by election officials defending the system is that voter fraud doesn’t occur in Vermont, and the proof of that is the fact that fraud is scarcely reported and even more seldom prosecuted.
This theme was echoed by Eric Covey, the Secretary of State’s Chief of Staff office provided official information about voter fraud in Vermont prior to the WVMT interview allegations coming to light.
“Our office referred 7 instances of potential irregularities, provided to us from the Town Clerks, to the Attorney General’s office following the 2020 General Election,” said Covey in an email response, “After investigation, 6 were found to be administrative errors or non-actionable. Example: the Clerk noted two voters with the same name had voted, only to find out that they were two different and unique voters, a father and son, with the same first and last name, but different middle initial, DOB, etc. casting their individual, unique ballot. Wrongdoing was only found in 1 single instance: a voter who wanted to make a political point by proving he could cast one ballot early by mail, and another at the polls. His goal was to test the system, and he was caught. His activity was detected, reported, investigated and prosecuted. The system worked.”
“But,” Rob Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute, which has been following this issue closely, responded, “All those instances involved someone trying to vote twice under their own identity. The guy they caught tried to vote by mail and in person. The clerical mistakes were along the lines of two people with the same name being confused as one person. The system does work in these cases, but as for situations like the one in Middlebury where someone casts someone else’s absentee ballots -- someone votes the ballots that erroneously show up in their mailboxes, or votes on behalf of a disinterested friend or relative – there is no system in place to detect fraud in these situations. This kind of thing could be happening a little or a lot. We have no idea. Anyone who says they know fraud doesn’t happen is lying.”
The states that have been doing all-mail voting for a while have put a number of safeguards in place to ensure the kind of fraud that allegedly took place in Middlebury are less likely to occur. A key one in “signature verification,” the process of identifying the person casting the absentee ballot as the person for whom the vote is being accredited by matching a signature on the ballot return envelope with a signature on file with election officials.
Asked if Vermont planned to enact such a safety measure, Covey replied, “Vermont is not a signature verification state and we do not have voter signatures on file. S.15 does not have a signature verification provision.”
Emails to Covey for further comment after the WVMT interview came to light were not returned prior to publication.
“What we’ll have if S.15 becomes law,” said Roper, “is a situation in which we mail out over half a million live ballots into the state, between one hundred and two hundred thousand of which will be unwanted or unclaimed and ripe for being “scooped up” by individuals or organizations intent on stealing elections. And, our election officials, and therefore we the people, will have no way of knowing when and to what extent this occurs. In my humble opinion this is as unacceptable as it is absurd.”
Absentee voting is now considered a staple of the election process, but recently there has been confusion between “absentee voting” and “mail-in voting.” Some of that confusion is due to the varied use of the term and regulation differences from state to state. Each state can set their own protocols, set by each legislature. Absentee voting is generally defined as a registered voter who is unable to vote in person on election day, so they personally request a ballot from their local town clerk.
What S.15 proposes to do is to automatically mail a ballot to every voter on the voter rolls regardless of whether or not they requested a ballot. The Joint Fiscal Office estimates making this change will cost $800,000 in one time costs for new equipment, $2,043,000 in election year costs, and a new position in the Secretary of State’s Elections team at $125,000 annually (requested by the Secretary of State’s office).
Rutland Senator Joshua Terenzini was one of only 3 senators to vote against the bill and the only one who explained his vote.
“I, along with so many of my colleagues have had the pleasure of serving as ballot clerks, as Justices of the Peace, as members of a select board, and as people who have been champions for free and fair elections. I have spent time at countless events registering voters and encouraging others to participate in our elections, regardless of who they decide to vote for!
Our right to vote in this country is a cornerstone of our democracy. It’s what sets us apart from other nations and makes America as special as it is. Everyone should have the ability to vote in an election if they choose. However, we already provide the opportunity for all Vermonters to vote by mail in they choose. If a registered voter cannot make it to the polls on election day, or decides that they wish to vote by mail, all that’s needed is a simple phone call to your clerk’s office to request a ballot. This fulfills your request as a voter, allows you to vote, and creates a record of your request.
I also heard from several local town clerks who were not in favor of this bill. As they are the local election officers, their consideration was a deciding factor of mine,” stated senator Terenzini. Reached for further comment, Terenzini stated “If you saw my comments, that pretty much sums it up.”
Vermont has a history of close races decided by a small number of votes where fraudulent mailed ballots could have made a huge impact.
In 2020 House Speaker Mitzi Johnson lost by 18 votes (23 after recount).
In 2016, after two recounts, David Ainsworth defeated Sarah Buxton by a single vote. Six years prior, Buxton beat Ainsworth by one vote.
In 2014 Scott Milne came within 2,034 votes of beating incumbent Peter Shumlin for governor, out of 193,087 total ballots cast.
In 2010 Vermont had nine House race recounts. Among them, John Rogers lost to fellow Democrat Sam Young by 3 votes.
An increasingly viable alternative to mail voting, with many companies in the process already, is block-chain technology voting systems. Both Republican and Democratic state conventions utilized the technology in recent years. The potential for American Idol voting convenience, coupled with extreme voting integrity, seems to be just around the corner.
In the meantime, S.15 has transferred to the House, with multiple committee assignments expected.