As concerns grow that expanded vote-by-mail may lead to election confusion in many states, clerks in Vermont’s Orange-1 House district are experiencing high numbers of spoiled ballots, which are disqualified votes under Vermont law.
For mail-in voting to count, voters must return ballots properly. For the Aug. 11 primary in Vermont, voters who requested absentee ballots have to follow instructions carefully. Voters received three party ballots — Democratic, Republican and Progressive — but only one is to be returned to the town clerk filled out, and the other two ballots must be returned blank in a sealed envelope.
According to Williamstown Town Clerk Barbara Graham, voters are making mistakes, which means their ballots are being spoiled and their votes disqualified.
“The ballots are coming back defective and that’s the fault of the voters,” she said. “There are some town clerks that put a note in with every ballot saying ‘please read the instructions.’ And I mean you’ve really got to know what you are doing.”
Graham said Tuesday she’s had about 20 ballots come back spoiled in her small town so far.
“It’s sad that people have voted and their vote is not going to count,” she added.
Another problem clerks are facing, according to Graham, is that ballot request cards were sent out to the assumed addresses of all active registered voters, yet some of those voters no longer reside at the addresses.
“They’ve sent just about anybody that was a registered voter in the last, I don’t know, 10, 12 years, if you are still on the checklist and your name did not get purged for some reason or another, you would get a card,” she said.
Graham said if one of those request cards reached an unintended recipient who decided to dishonestly fill out a request for an election ballot, ballots would be sent to them.
“That’s highly possible,” she said. “Say you bought a home and … you didn’t know what happened to [the former owner], and you turned around and filled it out [and] you sign it that you wanted it, a ballot is going to come back to your residence.”
Graham said she had about 150 request cards returned to her office and she had to check each one to see if that request might have been returned from the residence of someone who moved away or had died.
“You have to be on your toes,” she said. “I’m very fortunate that I live in a smaller community. Pretty much you know when you say a name in town I know who you are.”
The Orange-1 House district is comprised of voters in six towns: Williamstown, Washington, Chelsea, Corinth, Orange, and Vershire. On Aug. 11, voters in those towns will choose two Democrats and two Republicans to face off for two open seats in the general election in November.
Samantha Lefebvre, one of three Republican candidates competing in the primary, said she is out on the campaign trail and hearing voters complain about a variety of absentee ballot mishaps.
“People have relayed to me that they have either received ballot requests to their home for people that no longer live there, or who have passed away … or that they have not received one at all,” she said.
Lefebvre, 25, a resident of Orange, said she has also been hearing about a high numbers of spoiled ballots.
“Either the voters did not sign the outside of the envelope, or they voted on the Democrat and Republican ballot and sent both back,” she said. “Or they sent back the ballot they voted on in the envelope but they did not send back a blank ballot in their right envelope. So you have a lot of people who are, unfortunately, just not voting correctly.”
Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos made the decision to expand mail-in voting as a way to reduce in-person voting amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the Aug. 11 primary, his office sent ballot request cards to all registered voters. For the general election, however, the Secretary of State’s Office is sending ballots to all active voters on the voter checklist, potentially multiplying the amount of voted ballots that will come back spoiled.
Nancy Ertle, the town clerk in Corinth, told True North she can see how problems might occur with the ballot request cards sent by Condos’ office. In particular, she noted that there was a month gap from when the voter list was updated and when the request cards were sent to voters.
“For that whole month, or however long it was, people move and people die and what not,” she said. “If people are challenged on the list then they are sent a card to do an affirmation of residence. So if we get those back and they are not filled out or anything, then we would have to assume that the people have moved and not left a forwarding address with the post office.”
Ertle said if someone obtains one of these cards intended for someone else and wanted to fill it out illegally, she would likely catch it because Corinth has a small population.
“We’re a small enough town that I know who’s here and who isn’t,” she said. “In a larger town, I really don’t know if that could happen or not.”
Ertle is against expanding vote-by-mail as proposed by Condos. “My personal opinion is every voter should be accountable for wanting to vote,” she said.
She added that she expects to see lots of unclaimed and unwanted ballots floating around this year as a result of universal vote by mail. “We have 1,046 voters and our normal amount of people voting is like 265 people. So what’s going to happen with all that extra postage and all that extra paper and all that extra mailing?”
Rejected ballots could skyrocket due to mail-in voting. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission report from the 2016 election states that ballots are often rejected due to missing or unverified signatures, as well as late arrivals.
Election officials are also worried about delays caused by the U.S. Postal Service, which could be overwhelmed by mail-in voting. Such delays could cause election results to be delayed for days or even weeks past Election Day.
In light of these and other concerns, President Donald Trump on Monday said he may use an executive order to halt states that are mailing out ballots to all registered voters. “I have the right to do it,” he said at a press conference, adding that he hasn’t made a decision yet.