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,” a caller said with 2 minutes, 54 seconds remaining in the 22 minute segment. “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,” 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.
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 would allow Vermont to join five other states who have a permanent vote by mail system, but without the safeguards the other states have implemented. It passed the Senate by a vote of 27-3.
“In Middlebury I own an apartment building,” a caller told Secretary of State Jim Condos (left) on WVMT’s “Morning Drive.” “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.”
Vermont shattered its voter turnout record in 2020, and proponents cite the ease of the temporary 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 these fraudulent Middlebury ballots slipped through the system undetected, how do we know all 280,455 ballots are legitimate, and if not, how many were not?
Eric Covey, the Secretary of State’s Chief of Staff office provided official information on two pressing questions when interviewed via email (prior to the WVMT interview allegations coming to light).
Is there any centralized information on the amount of signatures on file for ballot comparison?
“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,” Covey responded.
Have there been any allegations of voter ballot fraud or tampering in recent history, either investigated or not deemed credible enough to be investigated?
“Our office referred seven instances of potential irregularities, provided to us from the Town Clerks, to the Attorney General’s office following the 2020 General Election. After investigation, six 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 one 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.
“I’ll also note that prior to 2020, we went many years without a single substantiated complaint of voter fraud and only one actionable instance in the past decade,” Covey wrote.
“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.”
Even with the record turnouts of 2020, voter apathy is extremely high. Americans are one of the least active voting populations among developed countries, with the U.S. coming in at 31 out of 35 countries in voter turnout. In a 2019 Gallup World Poll, 59% of Americans said they were not confident in the honesty of the election process, which was an improvement from 2016’s poll which showed 69% of Americans did not have confidence in the honesty of the process. To put this into perspective, only two other countries in the poll had less confidence in their election process, Chile, and Mexico. In 2006, more votes were cast for American Idol contestants than any president had received in American history to date.
The Vermont legislature joins many states working on voting access and procedures, hundreds of bills have been proposed in dozens of states across the country. Engaging voters and increasing convenience, while also maintaining voting integrity has become a hot-button issue considering recent national stories and a global pandemic.
Helping Americans be engaged by absentee voting is nothing new. Absentee voting first started during the Civil War. In the 1864 presidential election between Lincoln and George McClellan, 19 Union states changed their laws to allow soldiers to vote absentee. Some states permitted soldiers to name a proxy to vote for them back home while others created polling sites in the military camps themselves. About 150,000 out of one million soldiers voted in the election as a result.
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,” Sen. Terenzini.
Vermont has seen an increase in 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.