Our highest election officials don’t seem to care – at all
by Rob Roper
As Vermonters cast their votes around the state this Town Meeting week, I want to bring attention to the issue of ballot integrity – and Vermont’s complete lack of it when it comes to voting by mail.
During the Covid 19 lockdown election of 2020 Vermont experimented with a policy of mailing “live” ballots to all registered voters regardless of request, with some exceptions for cases where the voter has been formally “challenged” as being illegitimate. In 2021 the legislature made this experimental policy the official way of conducting elections from now on, despite major problems around the ability to detect absentee ballot fraud if and when it occurs.
To be clear: there are now ZERO security measures in place that would allow an election official to independently verify that a vote-by-mail ballot was filled out by the person to whom the votes are being attributed.
In other words, if I somehow get hold of your ballot by accident (it shows up in my mailbox instead of yours) or by theft (I take your ballot out of your mailbox) or even by mutual but illegal consent (I buy your ballot from you and/or your neighbors) our election officials have no way of knowing or even suspecting that any of this is happening, let alone the ability to track down such fraud, catch and prosecute the offenders.
The only hint that something is wrong would be if I got your ballot, cast it in your name, and you showed up at the polls and protested that you had not, in fact, voted. In that case, if the officials believe you and you get to cast a vote anyway, my original fraudulent vote still cannot be removed from the final vote count in the election, and there is still no way for them to catch me.
If this sounds too ridiculous to be true, don’t take my word for it. During 2021 testimony over S.15, which would become Vermont’s election law, Act 60 (that number has no good associations, does it?), Vermont’s Director of Elections, Will Senning, testified that in a cases where one person filled out someone else’s mailed ballot and sent it in, “It’s likely that that ballot will get processed, and [the person whose vote was stolen] would be checked off the checklist as having voted.”
Asked a similar question, Montpelier City Clerk and later a candidate for Secretary of State John Odum admitted, “The short answer to the question is, no, we can’t necessarily stop them [from committing fraud].”
Carol Dawes, the Barre City Clerk, confessed, “At this stage of the game there isn’t any way in our current system that would preclude somebody from… voting on behalf of someone who doesn’t want to vote…. That is an opportunity that’s out there.”
Well, it shouldn’t be an opportunity that’s out there, should it? Because bad actors take advantage of such opportunities, especially when there is zero chance of getting caught.
So, when S.15/Act 60 passed, Republicans on the Government Operations Committee agreed to vote ‘yes’ on the bill in exchange for a provision that would mandate that the Secretary of State’s office do a thorough study into what security measures could be brought to bear to eliminate this danger in future elections. That section reads:
On or before January 30, 2023, the Secretary of State’s office shall submit a written report to the House and Senate Committees on Government Operations with its findings and any recommendations for legislative action on:… (3) implementing a voter verification system in Vermont that will not disenfranchise voters and that will verify that ballots have been voted by registered voters, including a report back on the time, training and cost involved in implementing the system or systems.
The reader might have noticed that the report on ballot security suggestions was due after the 2022 election took place, which is a case of only thinking about possibly shutting the barn door after the horse has escaped. So, this was pretty weak tea to begin with.
But, even so, on January 31 I emailed Director Senning with a request to see the report his office was required by law to produce. His response:
I have requested, and received from the Gov Ops chairs, an extension of the deadline to file the report until next Monday (2/6). I will certainly provide you a link or a copy of the report when it has been submitted. — Will
I suspect that week extension after having had twenty months to research and write the report was necessary because then Secretary of State, Jim Condos, completely blew it off. The thirteen-page report that emerged on the February 6, less than four pages of which was dedicated to ballot security, looked like it was written by an ill prepared high school student pulling an all-nighter on a subject for which they never went to class or cracked a textbook.
After reading the report, which basically said signature verification is a cumbersome, expensive, and unreliable security measure, I responded to Senning:
Hi Will, Thanks again for sending along your report on election security for mail in ballots. I think your office did not do the task asked of you by the legislature. You were not asked to give solely an analysis of signature verification, but rather to present “findings and recommendations for legislative action on… implementing a voter verification system in Vermont that will not disenfranchise voters and that will verify that ballots have been voted by registered voters including a report back on the time, training and cost involved in implementing the system or systems.”
I asked if anything had occurred to change his testimony from 2021 regarding lack of security, and I asked if the office had done any outreach to town clerks or other election officials about their experiences in 2022 in preparing the report. That was February 10th. Here we are nearly a month later and, though Senning has emailed me twice to apologize for not having got back to me with an answer, I still have not received an answer.
The Republicans I reached out to – the ones who traded their votes in order to get this security study provision into the law in the first place – privately expressed concern about the lack of seriousness with which the Secretary of State’s office took this legal requirement. However, as of this writing they have not made any formal demand that the new Secretary of State, Sarah Copland-Hanzas, who before her election to higher office chaired the Government Operations Committee that helped write S.15, fulfill this promise and comply with the law by doing a legitimate study into ballot security measures. Nor have they made any public statement of outrage at having been lied to — by people who insist an honor code is all we need to ensure valid elections, which is kind of ironic, is it not?
If we are going to change the way we cast ballots – by mail instead of in person — we also need to change the ways we maintain ballot integrity in order to ensure that one-person-one-vote is actually what is taking place. Small communities where the Clerks “know everybody in town” is only a security measure when everybody in town shows up in front of the Clerk to cast their vote.
To be clear, I don’t necessarily have a problem with voting by mail or any other method that makes participating in elections more convenient, so long as doing so can be made fair and secure. Right now, what we have is not that. We cannot trust a system in which I get to cast my own ballot along with the four others that show up in my mailbox for the family that moved away six years ago.
But the way our elected election officials don’t seem to care and pretend this isn’t a problem makes me believe that this is not a bug in the system they’ve devised, but a feature.
Rob Roper is a freelance writer who has been involved with Vermont politics and policy for over 20 years. This article reprinted with permission from Behind the Lines: Rob Roper on Vermont Politics, robertroper.substack.com