Unauthorized absentee ballot requests expose holes in election security

Editor’s note: This article by Emma Lamberton originally appeared at Watchdog.org.

Errors by two political campaigns resulted in hundreds of voting law violations during the general election and have raised questions about how to close a possible voter fraud loophole in Vermont.

The Deborah Bucknam for Attorney General campaign and the Vermont Democratic Party submitted hundreds of absentee ballot request forms for voters before the Nov. 8 election. However, voters didn’t know about the requests and never gave permission.

That violates Vermont election law, according to Will Senning, director of elections at the Secretary of State’s office.

“The law requires you to have the authorization of the (voter),” Senning told Vermont Watchdog. “(These cases) would be in violation of that law.”

Because the ballots were mailed to the correct voters, the requests qualify as error, not fraud.

Nick Pappas, Bucknam’s campaign manager, told Watchdog that errors occurred in the campaign’s robo-call data. The automated system asked voters to “press one” if they wanted the campaign to request absentee ballots for them. But the lists the campaign received from the system misreported which voters selected that option.

As a result, the Bucknam campaign filed unauthorized absentee requests for approximately 400 voters statewide. The glitch was discovered during a second round of calls.

“We just wanted to get more people out to vote,” Pappas said.

The Vermont Democratic Party also filed absentee ballot requests for others without their permission, according to reports from multiple town clerks. In Rutland City alone, 25 voters contacted City Clerk Henry Heck to say they received absentee ballots without having given permission.

One of the voters, John Cioffi, was caught by surprise when a ballot showed up in his mailbox at home.

“I never spoke with the Democratic Party. I went down to City Hall and returned my ballot,” Cioffi told Watchdog.

The Vermont Democratic Party field organizer for Rutland didn’t respond to Watchdog’s requests for an interview.

Other towns had the same problem. Wallingford Assistant Town Clerk Jill Stone told Watchdog that 21 voters in her town received absentee ballots without permission.

Deborah Beckett, Williston’s clerk, confirmed that illegal absentee voter forms were a statewide problem. “Small towns especially had a high percentage (of unauthorized absentee requests). They were calling and finding that most people had not requested them.”

Senning said he contacted both campaigns to “make them aware of the law and make them clean up their practice.” Beyond that, Senning said no further action would be taken against campaign organizers unless a voter files a complaint in court or with his office.

He also instructed town clerks to disregard absentee ballot requests from Bucknam’s campaign, and to begin requiring phone numbers and addresses for third-party absentee requests.

While the unauthorized requests may have been innocent, they show how easy it might be to commit election fraud. For example, the absentee ballot request form includes a line for a voter’s signature, but no signature is required by law. Moreover, city and town clerks are not required to authenticate requests.

As a result, the process creates an opening for fraudsters to register voters who are unlikely to vote. In one scenario, someone wishing to commit fraud could request ballots without permission and have them sent to addresses where they can collect them and fill them out.

When Watchdog posed that scenario to Senning, he admitted that the fraudster would “not necessarily” be caught. He added that some errors are exposed at later dates and the Secretary of State’s office investigates those cases as they arrive.

Beckett said city and town clerks have no way to verify claims. “Once a ballot leaves the office, you don’t know that it reaches the right person. We rely on the integrity of the individual submitting the absentee request.”

Pappas said the Secretary of State’s office told him new legislation would be introduced in January to help correct such security loopholes.

State Rep. Douglas Gage, R-Rutland, told Watchdog legislation is long overdue. “The voter’s (signature) should be on there. This opens the floodgates for fraud, and voting is too important for that.”

“The voter checklist is very poor throughout the state. We need IDs at the polls,” he added.

Gage lost his initial bid for office years ago by one vote, and then claimed victory when a recount found absentee ballots had been received from a vacant lot and even from addresses that did not exist.

At least three House races in Vermont are undergoing a recount due to narrow margins of victory. Robert Frenier, of Chelsea, won by 9 votes. Incumbent state Rep. Larry Fiske, R-Enosburg Falls, lost by 15 votes, and David Ainsworth, a Republican candidate from Royalton, lost by three votes.

Emma Lamberton was Vermont Watchdog’s health care and Rutland area reporter.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Shannon McGee