By Guy Page
The Vermont Secretary of State’s Office hopes to reach an agreement with Gov. Phil Scott this week to institute universal voting-by-mail for the November 3 General Election.
The SOS plan would require all town and city clerks to mail ballots to all registered voters. Votes could be returned by mail, or (pandemic permitting) delivered in person to the town/city office or cast at the polls in the traditional manner.
Vote-by-mail critics worry: can voter fraud be avoided? Saying the risk is minimal, the Secretary of State’s Office argues its plan is necessary to protect voter safety and access if another Covid-19 wave strikes in the fall.
“If we wait and run November as an absentee-ballot-by-request election, we fear that town clerks will be overrun with ballot requests and/or we will see a repeat of what just happened in Wisconsin, with long lines, unnecessary exposure, and worst case, as happened in Wisconsin, infected poll workers and voters,” Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters warned in an email to the Chronicle of the Vermont State House. “We hope we will get agreement from the Governor this week and can set our plans in motion.”
At his press conference today, Gov. Scott said he has told the Secretary of State’s office about his concerns about the SOS plan, which are practical and not political or philosophical. In particular, he’s wondering about the printing schedule as ballots cannot be printed until after the August 11 primary.
How and why did Vermont’s vote-by-mail plan happen?
Think back to Town Meeting, two months and the proverbial lifetime ago. On March 3 we never dreamed it could be unsafe to return on November 3. Then the pandemic hit. Secretary of State Jim Condos and the Legislature responded quickly. The first Covid-19 emergency law (passed March 13) gives Condos authority to require all town and city clerks to mail primary and general election ballots to every registered voter.
Under Act 92, 2020 could be the year every ballot is mailed to voters and many if not most are returned by mail as well. The new law says:
The Secretary of State is authorized, in consultation and agreement with the Governor, to order or permit, as applicable, appropriate [for health and safety, these] elections procedures:
(1) requiring mail balloting by requiring town clerks to send ballots by mail to all registered voters;
(2) creating early or mail ballot collection stations;
(3) permitting municipal clerks to process and begin counting ballots in a 30-day window preceding the day of an election;
(4) permitting drive-up, car window collection of ballots by election officials;
(5) extending the time for municipal clerks to process and count ballots; and
(6) extending voting hours on the day of an election.
Why mail votes just for the General Election in November, and not the August 11 primary?
Universal voting-by-mail will not be used for the August 11 primary. “We do not think it would be possible to mail every voter a ballot for the primary in August and that the turnout for the primary (20-25%) does not pose the same risk as the high turnout we expect for the general (65%),” Winters said.
What about voter fraud?
Voting at the polls is an exercise in real-time government oversight. An in-person voting official hands you a ballot, another checks off your name, another watches you enter and exit the booth, another checks off your name again, and another collects the ballot or watches you feed it into a voting machine. By contrast, mailed voting has none of those eyes-on protections. The ballot leaves the town office. The ballot is returned. What happened in between is completely unknown.
That unsupervised gap, that period of the unknown, worries Vermont election watcher Rob Roper.
“Voting by mail as presently practiced cannot guarantee that the secret ballot and one person/one vote is actually taking place,” Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute, wrote in a recent column.
Roper cited the hypothetical example of uber-billionaire Warren Buffet and his secretary. At the polls, his vote counts no more or less than hers. Not so with mailed voting, in which Buffet could apply economic and other pressure to influence his secretary. Even if she complained, it would be her word against his.
“We can’t know in this case, for example, that Buffet didn’t use his power and wealth to bribe his secretary to vote a certain way or threaten to fire her if she didn’t. The more we rely on absentee ballots, the more inequity we build into the system as it allows for the rich and powerful, either individuals or organizations, avenues and opportunities to buy or bully votes. The poor and elderly are the most likely to be victimized under such a system,” Roper said.
Condos noted Vermont already has voluntary absentee mailed-in voting. Anyway those hypotheticals virtually never happen, he insisted. “Without any changes to our laws, Vermont currently allows early absentee voting to any registered voter that requests a ballot. Approximately 30% of our votes have been cast by early ballot in the last two general election cycles,” he said in an April 20 email to the Chronicle of the Vermont State House. “There is simply no evidence, and to my knowledge there has not been a single accusation in my time as Secretary of State, of someone returning a voted ballot on another person’s behalf. Not one in more than a decade.”
Condos claimed “there is zero evidence that widespread voter fraud exists. On the contrary – multiple non-partisan studies have found that voter fraud is exceptionally rare, including a study by the Brennan Center which found that occurrences of voter fraud were infinitesimally small, occurring between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent.They have also found that, despite the increase in ballots cast by mail over time, in both states like Vermont, and in full vote-by-mail states like Oregon or Washington, fraud rates remained infinitesimally small.
“Voter fraud is a serious criminal offense,” Condos said. “However, and fortunately, it is exceedingly rare. More common is the use of baseless voter fraud claims to discredit election outcomes, and to drive a personal political agenda.”
And yet large-scale voter fraud does occur, Roper said. “This is what happened in the North Carolina 9th, a U.S. congressional district with a bigger population than the entire state of Vermont, when the 2018 results were nullified by a court due to the decisive level of “vote harvesting” of absentee ballots. Vote harvesting is when campaign operatives show up on someone’s doorstep who has just received an absentee ballot (sometimes requested by that same campaign operative without the knowledge of the voter) and offers to “help”, threaten or bribe the voter fill out the form in a pre-determined way. In some cases the operative would just steal the ballot right out of the mailbox. In the NC-9 race, not only were fraudulent absentee votes for the cheating candidate turned in, legitimate votes for his opponent were collected and destroyed before they ever got into the hands of election officials.”
“If Vermont is going to rely increasingly on absentee ballots in elections, Secretary of State Jim Condos and members of the legislative Government Operations Committees need to be able to demonstrate that the kind of vote harvesting schemes that took place in North Carolina, and other districts to less dramatic effect, cannot happen here,” Roper said. “And they need to show in detail exactly how the safeguards work in practice to ensure that they don’t. If reliable safeguards are not in place now, they need to be by the August primary and November general elections.
“It’s not enough to scoff and say it’s not an issue and “our elections will be safe and secure,” Roper warned. “It is an issue. We’ve seen it happen.”
Photo: Poll worker at the 2019 Berlin Town Meeting, Vermont Daily photo