On May 18, Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos distributed a narrative in defense of S.15, an elections bill in the Vermont Legislature to direct the mailing of live ballots to all active voters regardless of request.
What follows is a point by point refutation of claims made by the Secretary of State regarding the content and potential impact of S.15 on Vermont elections by Rob Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute. Secretary Condos’ statements are in italics followed by my points of contention.
The big lie, perpetuated by former President Trump and some of his supporters, is that our elections are not secure. These dangerous and disingenuous claims are made without evidence to support them. The former President and his supporters have filed over 60 lawsuits across the country to try to steal the election. All but one were dismissed or ruled against because of a lack of evidence.
FALSE: There is considerable evidence that Vermont’s election laws under the 2020 Covid-19 measures and prospectively under S.15 are not secure. Testimony from Town Clerks and the Director of Elections confirms this. What is not clear is if or to what degree this lack of security is being exploited.
The claim that mailing a ballot to every active, registered voter will make our election system less secure is grounded in the same unfounded logic, yet the same trumped up voter fraud fearmongering is being used to try and stop S. 15, which will make the mailing of ballots to every voter a permanent feature of general elections. In reality, Vermont’s elections process is very secure.
FALSE. In reality, hearings before the Government Operations Committees of the House and Senate revealed that:
1. Town Clerks and the Director of Elections testified that there is NO WAY to determine if an absentee ballot was filled out and returned by the voter to whom the vote is being attributed.
2. Town Clerks and the Director of Elections testified If someone gets hold of someone else’s ballot, or multiple ballots, fills them out and sends them in fraudulently, those votes will almost certainly be processed and counted.
3. Town Clerks and the Director of Elections testified that the only indication a fraudulent vote may have been cast is if an absentee ballot is received, and a voter shows up at the polls and disputes the validity of the absentee ballot. However:
a. In a high turn-out election as many as 35% voters choose not to vote — their votes can be stolen without possibility of detection.
b. There is no way to independently verify that the voter did not actually send in their absentee ballot and is in fact voting twice. And,
c. If the voter is telling the truth, they will be allowed to cast a legitimate ballot, but with 30 days of early processing of absentee ballots, there is no way to remove the fraudulent vote from the final count.
4. All of the states that currently do vote-by-mail have some sort of voter ID provision for absentee ballots whereby election officials can independently verify that the ballot was filled out by the voter to whom the votes are being attributed. We can’t say “it works there so it will work here, if we don’t employ the same safeguards here that allow it to work there.”
In fact, the MIT Election Performance Index state rankings for 2016 and 2018 ranked Vermont #1 and #3 respectively in election administration.
MISLEADING: The 2016 and 2018 elections, which did not see ballots mailed to all active voters without request, can’t be honesty compared to 2020, or be used to project outcomes for 2022 and beyond. The proposed changes to election law in S.15 radically change the way we administer elections, but do not adapt new security measures to match new vulnerabilities in the new system.
According to the experts, the 2020 election was the most secure election in US. history, and the most scrutinized. Across the country, interest in and observation of election procedure has never been higher.
As states and voters increasingly relied on vote by mail, we did not see any evidence of increased rates of voting irregularities or election rigging.
MISLEADING. All other states that utilize vote by mail systems employ strict security measures specifically designed to maintain ballot security for absentee ballots, such as signature matching or other independently verifiable ID requirements. S.15 has no such security provisions. Places that used emergency vote by mail provisions in 2020 but with security measures, such as Patterson, NJ, did, in fact, see significant voting irregularities, in that case resulting in a contested election due to fraud.
What we did see was record shattering turnout despite the health challenges presented by a global pandemic.
MISLEADING. While turnout was, in fact, way up in 2020, it had more to do with public interest in the election than with the adoption of vote by mail. In fact, if you look at the history of states adopting vote by mail as a primary way of running elections (Oregon, Colorado, Utah, Washington), they all saw voter turnout fall or remain flat in the election year following their adoption of the policy.
Vermont voters overwhelmingly embraced the steps we took to make our elections safe and secure. Over 75% cast the ballots mailed to them early or by mail, and voter turnout was the highest in history.
IMPORTANT POINT: This criticism is not a condemnation of voting by absentee ballot as a concept. Only that to implement a radically new method of running elections, with glaring holes in ballot security, recognized and admitted by election officials, with no measures to shore up those holes is beyond negligent.
If enacted, S. 15 will make the mailing of ballots to all Vermont voters a feature of future general elections. Its passage received broad support by Republicans, Democrats, Progressive and Independents.
Our democracy is stronger when we all participate. The mailing of general election ballots to all voters will make our elections more accessible for all Vermonters, regardless of political party or viewpoint.
DEBATABLE: Analysis of the latest Census data by the Wall Street Journal revealed that the states with the longest history of standard vote-by-mail systems, Oregon (2000) and Colorado (2012), rank second worst and fifth worst for Black v. White racial disparities in turn out. Other studies show that voting by mail leads to minority populations having their ballots rejected for errors at a rate between 2 and 3 times than for other demographic groups.
Voting by mail has been a part of U.S. elections since before the Civil War. Many Vermonters serving active duty in the military rely on it to securely cast their ballots. In the last 10+ years we have seen voting by mail grow substantially here and across the country.
Yet rates of fraud have remained the same: infinitesimally small. In Vermont, Town Clerks referred 7 potential cases of 2020 voter abnormalities to my office. Only one was found to be actionable: a voter attempted to vote twice to prove he could dupe the system. He was caught and his test only proved that the system works. It was reported, investigated, and prosecuted.
ANOTHER WAY OF READING THAT. The fact that Town Clerks only reported seven cases of potential fraud could mean that fraud doesn’t occur, or it could mean that under Vermont’s vote by mail system fraud is nearly impossible to detect. Honestly, do you really think that no one in this state in 2020 filed out a ballot for their spouse, or aging parent? No one filled out a ballot that accidentally landed in their mailbox, even by mistake? Or is this evidence of the lack of quality control in the process?
If S. 15 is enacted, ballots will only be mailed to active registered voters, directly contradicting the ridiculous implication that ballots will be sent carelessly around the state. The Post Office will not forward ballots for people who have changed addresses; those undeliverable ballots will be returned to the Town Clerk.
FALSE. Sending ballots to all active voters on the checklist will, even in a high turnout election, result in as many as 200,000 unwanted or unclaimed ballots floating around the countryside. True, many if not most will be returned as undeliverable or destroyed by be the honest people who inadvertently receive them. But, many will fall through the cracks and present a tempting opportunity for large and small scale absentee ballot fraud.
Advancements in technology and policy have made our voter data more accurate than ever. Online and automatic voter registration provides a constant stream of updates as voters relocate, and we receive data from other states when voters move and register.
For an early ballot to be counted the Clerk must receive it in the certificate envelope, with a signed affidavit that the voter is who they say they are. These envelopes contain other voter data, including a unique identification number and barcode specific to that voter.
SO WHAT? None of the information provided by the person filling out the envelope is independently verifiable by election officials. Anyone can fill out the form, and Clerks as well as the Director of Elections testified that such fraud cannot be detected, and the vote will be processed. The bar code is a reliable tool for knowing who the ballot was intended for, and for whom the vote will be attributed, but it is useless for verifying who filled out and remitted the ballot.
These certificates are signed under the pains and penalties of perjury. Voting someone else’s ballot is a crime which carries substantial penalties.
SO WHAT? There is no way to catch someone who fills out another person’s ballot, rendering the penalties meaningless.
When the Clerk receives a ballot, the voter is checked off the entrance checklist as having voted. Since we track the data for every ballot that is mailed out, if a second ballot shows up anywhere in the state for that voter, we can investigate.
YES AND NO. The system we have and would have under S.15 is pretty good at ensuring two votes are not attributed to the same voter. If one votes absentee then shows up in person to try to vote again, that person will get caught. However, as Clerks and the Director of Elections testified, if someone steals someone’s absentee ballot and the legitimate person shows up to vote in person, not only is it unlikely that the fraudster can be tracked down and prosecuted, but with 30 days of early ballot processing, the fraudulent vote cannot be removed from the final vote count. In other words, even if detected, the fraud will still stand.
For someone to commit voter fraud, they would need to know where and when to find another voter’s ballot, steal it, perjure themselves by signing the envelope, get it back to the Clerk without leaving a trail, and be certain that the voter will not attempt to vote or that the Clerk will not catch on, while facing severe penalties if caught.
NOT REALLY. As we saw in 2020, many ballots showed up in the wrong mailboxes, or for previous residents who moved away, or for family members no longer living in the household. Getting hold of such ballots won’t be that hard. Someone willing to commit fraud isn’t worried about perjuring themselves. Putting the absentee ballot in a mailbox or a ballot drop box leaves no trail, and, as pointed out above, it doesn’t matter if the real voter shows up or not, the fraudulent vote will be counted.
All to change the results by a single vote - it’s just not worth the high probability they would be caught.
FALSE. Many Vermont house races are won/lost by a handful of votes. The speaker of the house lost her 2020 race by 19 votes. If I feel strongly about a race, and absentee ballots show up at my house for the previous residents, my two kids who are away at college and not intending to vote, and my aging parent who has dementia, nothing in S.15 can stop me from filling out all those ballots and sending them in, and, contrary to the statement above, as Clerks and the Director of Elections testified, there is almost ZERO chance I would be caught.
In the 2020 general election, we sent ballots out to all Vermont active voters, yet we did not hear of a single instance of voter impersonation.
YUP. This more likely a reflection of the lack of security in the system than working security.
It would be wrong to lump all opponents of S. 15 in with the ‘Stop the Steal’ conspiracy crowd who are using UV lights to search for bamboo fiber on ballots, but the arguments are the same and share a lack of evidence. They also pose the same serious risk: unduly undermining voter confidence in our election process.
Let’s not fall into that trap.
Vermont is poised to become one of the most voter friendly states in the entire country, at a time when legislatures are using conspiracy theories and outright lies to restrict the constitutional rights of their citizens.
We have an opportunity to do better, and to be a beacon for the nation, showing what truly accessible and secure elections look like.
FALSE. While under S.15, voting would be very accessible, it would not be at all secure. We should therefore go back to the drawing board and come up with a plan that actually reflects this worthy goal – truly accessible AND SECURE elections.
Rob Roper is president of Ethan Allen Institute.