By Rob Roper
Given the potential COVID-19 health risks associated with standing in line at polling places, there are understandably more calls for a move to voting by mail. This may turn out to be necessary, but if we are going to change the way we vote, we also have to ensure that the new ways are just as secure as the old. Otherwise citizens cannot have faith that that the outcomes of elections are fair, accurate, and therefore, valid.
The bedrock principle that ensures public confidence in the outcomes of elections is “one person, one vote.” In a polling place, the secret ballot ensures that Warren Buffet’s vote carries exactly the same weight as his secretary’s. But, voting by mail as presently practiced cannot guarantee that the secret ballot and one person/one vote is actually taking place.
When citizens go to the polls to cast their ballots, each vote is cast under the supervision of election officials. Each voter presents himself or herself and is checked off to ensure they only vote once. Not only is each voter ensured privacy for filling out his or her ballot, away from any influence or witness as to how he or she votes, but the community at large is ensured that the votes cast were made without the undue influence of other parties. This is every bit as important.
At a polling place, if election officials check off 500 voters as they pass through but find 600 ballots in the box, a red flag goes up that something is fishy. But, if those same election officials receive 600 absentee ballots in the mail, one hundred of which were fraudulently “stuffed,” the likelihood of that red flag going up is minimal. (In fact, you’d probably get a self-congratulatory press release praising the “fact” that voter participation was up 20 percent over the last cycle.)
Secrecy and singularity cannot be guaranteed with votes done through the mail. Election officials have too few and too weak tools for ensuring that the voter to whom “one vote” is being attributed is actually the “one person” who filled out the ballot. Or, if it is the correct voter, neither election officials nor the community at large have any idea whether or not inappropriate pressure was being applied by a spouse, caregiver, boss, landlord or campaign operative looking over the shoulder of the voter as he or she filled out the ballot.
We can’t know in this case, for example, that Buffet didn’t use his power and wealth to bribe his secretary to vote a certain way or threaten to fire her if she didn’t. The more we rely on absentee ballots, the more inequity we build into the system, as it allows for the rich and powerful — either individuals or organizations — avenues and opportunities to buy or bully votes. The poor and elderly are the most likely to be victimized under such a system.
This is what happened in the North Carolina 9th, a U.S. congressional district with a bigger population than the entire state of Vermont, when the 2018 results were nullified by a court due to the decisive level of “vote harvesting” of absentee ballots. Vote harvesting is when campaign operatives show up on someone’s doorstep who has just received an absentee ballot (sometimes requested by that same campaign operative without the knowledge of the voter) and offers to “help,” threaten or bribe the voter fill out the form in a predetermined way. In some cases the operative would just steal the ballot right out of the mailbox. In the NC-9 race, not only were fraudulent absentee votes for the cheating candidate turned in, but legitimate votes for his opponent were collected and destroyed before they ever got into the hands of election officials.
If Vermont is going to rely increasingly on absentee ballots in elections, Secretary of State Jim Condos and members of the legislative Government Operations Committees need to be able to demonstrate that the kind of vote harvesting schemes that took place in North Carolina — and other districts to less dramatic effect — cannot happen here. And they need to show in detail exactly how the safeguards work in practice, to ensure that they don’t. If reliable safeguards are not in place now, they need to be by the August primary and November general elections.
It’s not enough to scoff and say it’s not an issue and “our elections will be safe and secure.” It is an issue. We’ve seen it happen. The reason so few people are prosecuted for vote fraud isn’t because elections are secure, it is because the rules have been loosened to the point where it is practically impossible to detect, and, if detected, to catch and prosecute offenders. Just look at how many tax or identity fraud schemes pop up targeting senior citizens every year. Do you really think people who would steal an old lady’s Social Security check would draw an ethical line at stealing her vote when control over millions, billions and trillions of tax dollars are at stake?
Yes, we want everybody to be able to vote and to do so as safely and conveniently as possible. But these goals must be met in concert with maintaining the security of, and confidence in, the one person/one vote standard. Otherwise, we have lost, or rather thrown away, the democratic bedrock of our republic.
Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe.