By Rob Roper
There is a vote fraud case in Vermont, currently in the Essex Superior Court, in which a family of second home owners from Connecticut (parents and two adult children) registered to vote in the town of Victory, and did so. Their votes likely altered the outcome of a local election, which was decided by fewer than four votes.
Now, all four of these family members listed Connecticut as their primary residence on their income taxes, had Connecticut driver’s licenses, paid property taxes on a primary dwelling in Connecticut, did not pay residential property tax rates on their second home in Vermont, had jobs in Connecticut, and spent an overwhelming amount of their time in Connecticut. But they were voting by absentee ballot in Vermont, deciding who would represent in public offices the people who actually live here.
That’s vote fraud, right? Wrong! At least according to our Secretary of State’s office.
Robert and Toni Flanagan, two of the defendants in this case, testified under oath that they consulted with the Vermont Secretary of State’s office and were advised that their voting in Vermont under these circumstances was okay, that they should just leave the residency box on the voter registration form blank.
Vermont statute says: “… ‘resident’ shall mean a person who is domiciled in the town as evidenced by an intent to maintain a principal dwelling place in the town indefinitely and to return there if temporarily absent, coupled with an act or acts consistent with that intent.”
So, how does one establish “intent?” In a recent interview, Secretary of State Jim Condos said, “My staff refers to the law and tells the person that they need to determine for themselves whether they qualify under the legal standard.”
What? Determine for themselves?
Will Senning, who serves under Condos as director of elections, was asked under oath: “When a voter registers, does that voter have to have a principal residence in the town at the moment that they register?” Senning’s answer: “Not necessarily.” Asked “Why not?” his answer was, “Because they may be intending to make that place their principal residence in the near future.” Pressed further with the question, “How far out can that intent be?” Senning testified, “There’s no objective standard in terms of that time frame.”
This wildly loose interpretation of the residency requirement does not reflect the spirit or the language of the statute. In practice it means that there is no legal standard of residence for voting in Vermont. If individuals can determine for themselves that they qualify to vote here and can validate that determination simply by expressing an “intent,” which cannot be objectively challenged, what’s to stop anybody from anywhere from voting in our elections?
What allegedly happened in Victory is that the town clerk, an elected position, actively recruited these out-of-town friends to join the local voter rolls in order to help assure her own re-election to the job.
The implications here are profound. According to Census data, there are over 40,000 second homes in Vermont, 14.6 percent of the total number of households. If these folks decide they don’t like their property tax bills – or love Vermont but don’t like its politics – they can register to vote here. All they have to do if questioned is tell election officials that they intend to make their second home their permanent residence at some point in the future. Whether they actually ever do or not is irrelevant.
In fact, what’s to stop someone from registering in Vermont to vote in elections they think are more important here, and then re-registering in their real home towns to vote in elections they deem more important there. “One day I intended to move to Vermont, then I changed my mind. Then I changed my mind back!” Just so long as you don’t vote in both places for the same election you are apparently not committing any crime. Or at least not one that can be proven.
There are two ways of looking at this: A) this is good, legal, public policy. Or, B) our Secretary of State’s office under Jim Condos is not only turning a blind eye to but actively facilitating vote fraud.
If A, let’s alert all those people from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, etc. who own ski chalets and lake cabins in our communities of their legal options for participating in Vermont elections. The more the merrier. After all, in little old Vermont where elections are often decided by a handful of votes, your absentee ballot can really make a difference.
If B, we need to demand that our chief elections officer put some teeth into our residency requirements for voting and make sure this kind of nonsense does not and cannot happen. Jim Condos is fond of saying there is no illegal voting going on in Vermont. I guess it’s easy to think that if you allow that nothing is illegal.
Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe.