While Secretary of State Jim Condos says Vermont’s vote-by-mail system has a safeguard in place to ensure that people casting ballots are who they say they are, town clerks on the front lines of elections say it’s not routine to check.
As election officials across the country consider how to keep voters healthy during the coronavirus pandemic, Vermont’s elections chief has plans to send all registered voters mail-in ballots for the general election. Voters who fear catching the virus at public polling places can opt to vote from home.
But critics of a universal vote-by-mail system say the the process lacks the safeguards in place for in-person voting. In Vermont, election law provides only one safeguard to prevent someone from casting a ballot fraudulently through the mail.
“[State] law currently requires the voter to place the voted ballot in a certificate envelope which requires a legible name and signature before being placed in the outer return envelope,” Condos told True North. “The certificate is filled out under the penalty of perjury, and it says so. It includes a statement that the voter voted in private and was not influenced by anyone.”
While it’s clearly illegal to commit voter fraud by mail, what’s less clear is how election officials catch someone who ignores the perjury warning and files a fraudulent vote anyway.
According to St. Johnsbury Town Clerk Stacy Jewell, there are no IDs required to register to vote, and not everyone has a signature on record to compare against ballots that are mailed back. Furthermore, it’s not a routine practice to check signatures to see if they match.
“No, we don’t [check]” she said.
There are other problems. Vermont’s voter rolls are flooded with the names of people who have moved away or died. Jewell said that presents challenges for operating a vote-by-mail election.
“If the mail gets forwarded and they’ve moved to another state and we don’t know it, we may not know any difference,” she said.
Asked if St. Johnsbury had any cases of vote-by-mail voter fraud during the previous election, Jewell replied, “Not that we would know. Like I said, you’re not gonna know.”
Condos, the person in charge of ensuring free and fair elections, doesn’t worry about voter fraud. He says it is “virtually nonexistent.” However, some election watchers who watch nationwide have documented over a thousand prosecuted cases of voter fraud. In addition, The Heritage Foundation notes that over 6 million absentee ballots went missing in the 2016 election alone.
Plainfield Town Clerk Linda Wells told True North that when it comes to voting by mail, there are three components involved: the ballot itself, the voted-ballot envelope and the postage-paid return envelope. The voted-ballot envelope is the component that could be used to verify the identity of the voter.
“They have to swear and affirm that they are registered in Vermont in the town that they are voting in, and they also have to sign below that they voted on that ballot and that they were not persuaded by someone else,” she said.
Wells said it’s not standard practice to check the signatures against other signatures to see if they match, however.
“It must be complete and signed or else it will not be counted. … We treat that as confirmation that it’s the voter,” Wells said.
St. Albans Town Town Clerk Anna Bourdon said if a signature looks suspicious, her office has copies of licenses and other material to compare signatures to. However, she added it’s not standard to check every signature.
“There are some voters that never vote, so we would check those,” she said.
Not everyone is convinced these protocols are enough. A recent poll of registered voters in Vermont found that more than half say election officials aren’t able to verify who is filling out mail-in ballots, and 71% said voter identification should be required for anyone to cast a vote. Condos argues that requiring identification is “voter suppression.”
Voting by mail has other pitfalls. The United States Postal Service is having extreme financial issues and may run out of money as early as the end of this summer. Condos said “our elections will be in jeopardy” if that happens.
In addition, the Public Interest Legal Foundation, which has released a research brief outlining national statistics for mail balloting failures, found that 28 million mail-in ballots have gone missing in the past decade.