Editor’s note: This commentary is by Sen. Joe Benning, the minority leader who represents the Caledonia-Orange District in the Vermont Senate.
On May 29th the Caledonian Record published an editorial supporting my and my town clerk’s position on S.348, the bill proposing that every registered voter be mailed a ballot for the general election in November. Rather than spend money on mailing ballots to every registered voter, we contend it would be better to spend money on post cards advising voters that they could request absentee ballots if they were concerned about showing up at the polls during the current COVID-19 pandemic. On May 30th Secretary of State Jim Condos replied to that editorial. He took the Caledonian Record to task for supporting our position.
Secretary Condos and I agree it is imperative that voters are safe if there is any chance the current pandemic is still a threat come November. The only issue between us is his idea that live ballots should be mailed to every currently registered voter as the way to achieve that safety.
For 10 years now the citizens of the Caledonia Senate District have honored me with the ability to serve as one of their state senators. Whenever presented with a legislative proposal, I have endeavored to distinguish whether that proposal is actually “necessary.” I have also done my best to think ahead on what might be unintended consequences. Traditionally I oppose legislation that is either unnecessary or contains a potential mine field of negative unintended consequences.
It is for the above reasons that I have problems with S.348’s plan to mail a live ballot to the household of every currently registered voter, which some estimates place in the range of 200,000. Is this necessary in order to keep voters safe? If the rationale for doing so is to allow the voter to avoid a polling station, the answer is: “no.” Why? Vermont already has a system called “absentee voting,” which does exactly the same thing. Any voter who wishes can request that a ballot be mailed to them. They, in turn, can mail it back. Town clerks already know how to do this. They need no special training. There is no reason to re-invent this wheel.
Are there also potential unintended consequences with S.348? Several. Contrary to those who would seek to couch this discussion as a battle between political parties, the reality is these unintended consequences are the result of simple human behavior.
As a long standing member of Lyndon’s Board of Civil Authority, I’ve spent many hours helping to purge our checklist of voters who have moved or died. Despite our best efforts, we always miss people. It is not humanly possible for a small handful of people to know every single voter in town. Blindly unleashing a couple hundred thousand live ballots statewide guarantees some of those ballots will end up in places where a presumed voter no longer exists. By itself, this dilutes election security.
Does this mean I contend there will be widespread fraud? No. I tend to believe Vermonters will do the right thing. However, after almost 37 years as a criminal defense lawyer, I also know sometimes they don’t. It only takes one nefarious individual to stain an election. Former Representative Sarah Buxton and now deceased Representative David Ainsworth are proof that some elections are decided by only one vote. With absentee balloting, the ballot is specifically requested and sent to a known entity, which provides at least some measure of security. Why eliminate that security?
There are other legitimate questions. When you vote at a polling station … politicians and special interest groups are kept a specific distance away from you. Why? Fear of undue influence. Armed with specific addresses of every live ballot, they now have strong motivation to pay each such household a visit. What happens when they get there? Did the voter fill out the ballot? Although attestations with signatures are required for returned ballots, there are no signatures on file at the town clerk’s office to cross check them. Even if it was filled out by the actual voter, who was sitting next to them and what were they saying when the check mark was applied? Who is it that carried the ballot to the mailbox? Did they put it in? It is impossible to know. S.348 does not address these concerns.
At the end of the day, this bill is unnecessary because we already have a secure system in place that enables voters to be and feel safe when exercising their right to vote. Potential unforeseen consequences that could dilute the sanctity and security of our election cannot be dismissed. For those reasons, I cannot support this bill.