Editor’s note: This article by Emma Lamberton originally appeared at Watchdog.org.
Clerks across eight counties are reporting that the Vermont Democratic Party submitted unauthorized absentee ballot requests for the general election — an illegal act under Vermont election laws.
While the Secretary of State’s office doesn’t keep a record of unauthorized ballot requests, Watchdog’s calls to 17 town clerks found that the VDP made 115 requests for absentee ballots without voters’ approval.
The number of unauthorized requests may be much higher since Vermont has 237 towns and nine cities, and because unauthorized requests are discovered only when voters report the suspicious activity to local clerks.
As reported by Vermont Watchdog, multiple campaigns requested absentee ballots for voters without permission. Third parties, such as political campaigns, are allowed to request absentee ballots, but only with voters’ approval.
Watchdog’s inquiry to seven town clerks in Franklin County uncovered 54 unauthorized requests. In reaching out to 11 municipalities in Rutland County, Watchdog uncovered 36 unauthorized requests.
Ed Ballantyne, the VDP’s county chair for Franklin, refused Watchdog’s request for an interview. Julian Fenn, the VDP’s regional field organizer for Rutland, didn’t return multiple requests for an interview.
Chris Larson, county chair for Rutland County, told Watchdog his local field staff mistakenly requested unauthorized ballots because of a volunteer error in which two lists got mixed up.
“We’re making changes to the process to insure an error like this doesn’t happen again,” Larson told Watchdog.
In three towns in Windham County — Marlboro, Jamaica and Grafton — the VDP made 15 unauthorized absentee ballot requests, out of 16 total requests.
Will Senning, director of elections at the Secretary of State’s office, told Watchdog he is aware of about 30 incidents of unauthorized requests made by the Vermont Democratic Party.
Vermont Democratic Party Chair Dottie Deans and Vice Chair Timothy Jerman didn’t return Watchdog’s request for comment. Regional Field Director Brandon Bantham also ignored multiple interview requests.
Christina Amestoy, the VDP communications director, said she is unaware of the broad pattern of illegal requests across Vermont counties and municipalities.
“Those had never been brought to our attention, and as far as we know have not been flagged by the Secretary of State’s office,” she said. “We have not received any calls from those town clerks’ offices, and are not aware that any formal complaint has been made to the Secretary of State’s office.”
In each instance, the requests were signed by election workers under the official organization name of the Vermont Democratic Party. Senning said his office issued verbal warnings about the requests but would take no further action unless a voter makes a formal complaint through his office or in court.
The full extent of the problem may never be known. To have an absentee ballot marked as unauthorized, a voter must call the clerk’s office or return the ballot in person. Clerks can also contact voters, but they are not required to under law.
Since absentee ballot request forms do not require a voter signature, it is impossible for clerks to verify a request is legitimate without voter confirmation. As a result, it is likely that many more unauthorized requests went unnoticed because individuals did not report the problem.
Multiple clerks told Watchdog that a large portion of absentee ballots sent out this year were never returned, indicating that those ballots also might be unauthorized.
Absentee ballot requests are recorded in the Vermont Elections Management System, a database managed by the Secretary of State’s office. This year, Vermont voters requested 100,266 absentee ballots and returned 95,203. The number is up significantly from the 2012 election, where Vermonters returned 76,263 absentee ballots.
Emma Lamberton was Vermont Watchdog’s health care and Rutland area reporter.