Editor’s note: This article by Emma Lamberton originally appeared at Watchdog.org
Republican Bonnie DePino didn’t win her race to become a Vermont state representative, but while trying she discovered a little-known fact about the statewide voter checklist: it’s woefully inaccurate.
When Bob DePino wanted to send 2,000 fliers for his wife’s House campaign, he gathered voters’ addresses from the official statewide checklist and sent out a mailing.
The effort didn’t turn out so well. More than 500 fliers were returned undeliverable.
Shocked by the result, the DePinos soon came to the realization that information on roughly one quarter of voters was either wrong or out of date.
“I just thought this can’t be right,” Bob DePino told Watchdog.
Investigating further, he looked up voters on his street, including his aunt, who moved away in 2006 but has since died. DePino was again surprised at what he found.
“There are 11 people on my street alone that no longer live here but are still registered to vote,” he said, adding that his deceased aunt was included in that number.
About 94 percent of Vermont adults are registered to vote, compared to the national average of 59 percent. However, when looking at the percentage of adults who actually vote, Vermont is only 5 percentage points above the national average.
“I look around and see so much apathy,” DePino said. “How can we have almost 470,000 voters on that roster?”
Updating the voter checklist is a job for each town’s Board of Civil Authority, which includes officials serving as justices of the peace. Some boards delegate the work to municipal clerks.
“We literally work every day on this,” Rutland City Clerk Henery Heck told Watchdog, “We’re continually updating the list.”
According to state guidelines, registered voters who have not voted in two election cycles are supposed to be removed from the list.
Assistant Town Clerk Veronica Parrish is involved in the verification process for the town of Middlebury.
“We send out challenge letters, and every other year remove voters if we get no response,” she said.
If a voter on the registry is marked as “challenged,” that person can vote by showing up at the polls and displaying proper identification and proof of address.
Officials don’t otherwise make changes to addresses or check on deceased voters unless contacted.
Craig Bingham, Middlebury’s justice of the peace, told Watchdog that justices look at the registry in preparation for the election but rarely update listings “because the checklists are kept up so well.”
According to the most recent checklist, 27,818 voters are marked as challenged. Many of these voters have not been active in years, yet they remain on the list.
Leaving challenged voters on the registry creates the opportunity for voter fraud, a reality Watchdog exposed in 2014. Inaccurate information, such as deceased persons or vacant addresses, also give opportunity for absentee ballot fraud.
An analysis of the registry shows that potentially thousands of additional voters should be challenged or removed due to inactivity and incomplete information
“There are 20,000 voters who haven’t voted in four years and 15,000 who haven’t voted in 12 [years].” DePino said.
In October 2015, the Secretary of State’s office modernized its voter checklist program, and this year marked the first election in which the new system was used.
South Burlington Town Clerk Donna Kinville said that because a certain feature was not available on the new program, she was not able to remove the 600 challenged voters from her town before the November election. However, she has plans to do so in the spring.
Will Senning, director of elections in the Secretary of State’s office, told Watchdog the new program is working well and that feedback from town officials has been positive.
“It has streamlined and made more efficient many of the processes clerks are required to undertake in managing an election, including maintenance of the voter checklist,” he said.
Senning also noted that clerks should have no problem removing names from the list: “It also has a specific search feature which will display those challenged voters who are eligible to be removed based on the statutory requirements. Removal of challenged voters should be a very manageable process using the system’s current features.”
Town clerks received training from the Secretary of State’s office, and Senning said his office is happy to help clerks like Kinville make full use of the program.
DePino doubts the system is working well, and added that inaccurate information is dangerous to secure elections. “This list is supposed to be cleaned up every four years. Clearly, no one is doing it at all,” he said.
Town clerks have 90 days after an election to log in voter activity, so some of the wrong data DePino encountered may soon be corrected.
Readers can check the accuracy of their neighborhood’s voter checklist by requesting a voter registry through the Secretary of State’s office.
Emma Lamberton was Vermont Watchdog’s health care and Rutland area reporter.