by Kevin Joseph Ryan
You too, can be somebody in Vermont…and vote. We’re just not sure who you are, nor do we seem to care much. We do require identification to drive a car, open a bank account, get married, get a job and even to buy a pack of cigarettes, but under Vermont law, no ID is necessary to vote. The unusual nature of this policy was made clear with a widely viewed internet video made by James O’Keefe, an associate of the recently deceased conservative iconoclast Andrew Breitbart. O’Keefe, the past few years, has made a career of creating political stunts, which serve to point out some of the absurdities of modern government. In January, the crusading prankster demonstrated how easy it would be to create voter fraud under New Hampshire law, resulting in the Senate there passing a bill which requires showing ID at the polls. This week, it was Vermont’s turn.
The ten-minute video shows O’Keefe in Essex, Burlington and other Vermont locations, attempting to obtain voting ballots using the names of both apparently deceased and living registered voters, and having a great deal of success. He then contrasts this with a visit to Vermont Pub & Brewery, where in Candid Camera fashion, he attempts to purchase a drink with no ID, only to find, with mock indignation, that the bartenders there would very much prefer to verify that you have some state document with a picture on it. While this writer had very little luck in turning over any evidence that voter fraud is a de facto issue here in the Green Mountains, O’Keefe’s experiment does show that the Vermont voter verification requirements could become problematic. In 2010, for example, Representative Sara Buxton (D-Royalton) won her election to the Vermont House by just one vote, as did Gale Courcell (D-Rutland).
While voter fraud and error have not been a problem in Vermont as yet, this has not been the case in other states. New York, California and even Tennessee in recent years, have seen many cases of people casting votes, which is normally not an issue, except with folks like Marvin Porter of Texas, who at the time he voted in 2008 was unfortunately deceased. While such an event might raise an eyebrow in Granby, Vermont, which cast 19 votes in March’s recent presidential primary, a skewing of the correct popular vote might go unnoticed in a larger City such as Burlington, where over 10,000 voters cast their ballots this past Tuesday in seven different wards.
Jack Lindley, Vermont’s Republican Chairman, believes this to be a problem. “This strikes at the core of our democratic process.” Said Lindley in an interview Wednesday. The Chairman would like The Secretary of State’s Office to look into irregularities, such as provisional ballots not verified and the Burlington Voter List not being scrubbed of names no longer valid. Lindley pointed out that the Burlington Free Press had reported 10,000 new voters registered in the Queen City in the last election cycle, a claim that turned out later to not be the case. “I’m just going by what my good friends in the press tell me,” said Lindley.
Upon checking with Margaret Poirier, the Manager of Registration for the past 23 years, it turns out that Burlington added 3797 new voters over the past ten years. “We do try to scrub the list as best we can,” said Poirier. That job is the responsibility of the Board of Voter Registration, whose Chair, Elizabeth Mickenberg, said, “I don’t want to disenfranchise people. People are registered who no longer live here and that’s what we’re working on.
(Burlington Chief Administrative Officer) Scott Schrader handles that via address verification. Some show ID – I generally believe most people are honest.”
One odd situation is true in Burlington as of this writing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Burlington’s adult population is 35,630, while the number of registered voters is 35,500. Having 99% of one’s population registered to vote is a laudable goal, but is very unlikely.
Elections in Vermont are ultimately overseen by the Secretary of State’s Office, currently held by Jim Condos. The Secretary is not amused by O’Keefe and Lindley’s attempts to show the deficiencies of Vermont’s voter identity verification system, which only requires the voter state their name out loud to the election clerk. “Mr. O’Keefe claims to be a reporter, I think that’s kind of a dubious point….In this instance, he’s trying to create news where there isn’t any,” said Condos during a radio interview on WDEV Wednesday. “…I think he raised a concern and I think we need to look at this concern and determine what the law needs to be changed…back in 1788, when the constitution was first ratified, the electorate was just limited to white landowners…what the attempt on the conservative side is right now, is to try to disenfranchise voters and suppress the vote.”
Based on these statements, it remains unclear as to whether Condos feels that a review of Vermont election law is needed, whether O’Keefe’s video is an abuse of the election system, or both. What is clear is that Condos wants O’Keefe investigated. Susanne Young, the Director of the General Council for the Vermont Attorney General’s Office did confirm that the Office did receive a complaint from Condos requesting an investigation into O’Keefe. She said that they have not yet determined how to proceed, but were viewing the video and the applicable law involved.
Across the nation, the issue of properly identifying voters has been intensifying. 31 states have passed laws requiring some type of identification be presented as evidence that anyone attempting to vote are in fact who they claim. Some sates are requiring valid photographic ID’s, some will accept expired or unofficial ID for voting purposes, and some simply require a utility bill or other addressed proof of identity. Democratic officials, like Condos, make the claim that these requirements are nothing more than racism and an attempt to stop the elderly or disabled from voting.
Some liberal politicians, like Burlington’s Chris Pearson would like to go the other direction and make voter registration even easier, as with a bill he introduced during the 2012 legislative session, which would automatically register voters on their eighteenth birthday. He is open to a “conversation on voter ID, but not as it is being proposed across the country now,” Pearson said.
Voter requirements and rules have certainly changed over the years, but one thing remains true throughout. You cannot disenfranchise a voter who meets the standards of the rules set up by the State, they can only disenfranchise themselves by not meeting the requirements of the important civic duty of voting. The only question is, will we make it easy, and open the door for questions of impropriety, or secure the ballot, and ensure elections are reliable and fair. Vermont deserves an answer, and hopefully voting won’t be easier than buying a beer at the corner pub.