By Rob Roper
The three biggest advocates of a mail-in ballot election are Democrat Secretary of State Jim Condos, Democratic legislators, and Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG). The “election by mail” proposal they are pushing calls for mailing all active voters on the statewide checklist a “live” absentee ballot for the November 2020 election, regardless of the voter’s request.
Here’s the math. There are roughly 480,000 registered voters in Vermont, and in the 2016 presidential election year, which had a high turnout, just 67% of registered voters cast ballots (and many of those still on the checklist are invalid voters having died or moved away). This means that the Condos/VPIRG vote-by-mail proposal, if allowed to move forward, will lead to something like 160,000 unclaimed or unwanted ballots just floating around — for any unscrupulous actors to collect, fill out and mail in.
There are no meaningful safeguards or mechanisms in place to detect or track down, and therefore prosecute, anyone who illegally fills out an absentee ballot, or multiple ballots, in someone else’s name. As the St. Johnsbury Town Clerk Stacy Jewell admitted in a recent interview when asked if she had seen any cases of vote-by-mail during the previous election, “Not that we would know. Like I said, you’re not gonna know.”
So, who would take advantage of 160,000 “floater” ballots plus hundreds of thousands more confused Vermont voters suddenly receiving absentee ballots they didn’t request?
In January, VPIRG announced that they were forming a Political Action Committee, VPIRG Votes, described as the “political campaign arm” of the left-wing organization. According to VPIRG Executive Director Paul Burns, “The PAC would go door to door in the fall to canvass for [“pro-climate”] candidates and encourage people to vote, said Burns (VTDigger 1/21/20). And maybe they’ll help those confused folks to fill out their ballots and collect the unclaimed ones in the process.
A partisan PAC, organized for going door to door “encouraging” people to vote for just “pro-climate” candidates, after that same group advocated heavily for an all-mail election, looks an awful lot like a planned, systematic “ballot harvesting” operation.
Ballot harvesting is the process by which campaign operatives go door to door collecting absentee ballots and remitting them to polling places. In some states this is illegal, such as North Carolina where a 2018 election in that state’s 9th congressional district was invalidated due to the practice. In other states, like California, the practice allowed. In all cases it is unethical.
During testimony before the Senate Government Operations Committee on May 26, Sen. Brian Collamore (R-Rutland) asked regarding ballot harvesting in Vermont, “Is there anything to prevent an individual, could be a candidate or not, or a group or association, for offering to pick up completed ballots and bring them into their town clerk’s office or a polling place or to mail them?”
Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters answered, after a long, awkward pause, “The current law does, I believe, allow for that.” So, ballot harvesters, start your engines!
If third parties were simply going around providing a service of collecting and handing in legitimate absentee ballots like some kind of volunteer postal service, that might be OK. However, in North Carolina collectors pressured citizens into voting for their preferred candidates, stole ballots and filled them out themselves, and destroyed the ballots of those voting against their preferred candidates. This is a practice easily abused. More so when the chief election official of the state is in league with the probable perpetrator of the activities, blithely assuring the public that “there is no fraud in Vermont,” nothing to see here.
We have a situation here in which the special interest group, VPIRG, with a $2 million a year plus budget, is lobbying the Legislature to pass a bill that will allow them to aggressively ballot harvest — legally and potentially illegally — on behalf of the majority party in that Legislature, which is all too eagerly clearing the path for them to do so, with the Chief Election Officer of the state, also of the majority party, putting his stamp of approval on the scheme. On a party line vote, the Senate Government Operations Committee just moved a bill that would strip Governor Scott of his ability to block vote by mail.
Vermont already has a very easy absentee ballot program — by voter request — in place and allows for 45 days of early voting. About 30% to 40% of Vermont voters already take advantage of this system. There is no need to mail every active registered voter a live ballot, flooding the state with unclaimed, unwanted ballots. If we are going to see a heavier reliance on vote-by-mail, either under the present system or the Condos/VPIRG scheme, Republicans and honest citizens should at least demand that ballot harvesting be made clearly, unambiguously illegal before November.