In honor of Primary Eve, I thought it’d be fun to recount a little trip I recently took. A trip deep into the heart of Vermont’s election law. Warning: some scenes may be unsuitable for those with a lick of common sense. Also, do not operate heavy machinery while reading this post.
It all began when a tipster told me that a certain candidate for the Vermont House of Representatives might not meet the residency requirement: to be a candidate, you have to have lived in the district for at least one full year.
Spoiler alert: turns out the candidate does qualify, so far as we can tell. In a way, it’s not a story at all; but the process was enlightening to a politics nerd like me, and It’s My Blog So I’ll Write If I Want To.
The candidate in question is Adam DesLauriers, Democrat running for the House in the two-seat Orange-1 district. Incumbents are Progressive Susan Hatch Davis and Republican Rodney Graham. DesLauriers and Davis are the only candidates on the Democratic ballot, so both are virtually assured of winning nominations.
Rumor had it that DesLauriers, a son of the guy who created the Bolton ski area, only registered to vote in Orange-1 in April of this year, far too late to qualify as a candidate. I confirmed this with the Washington town clerk’s office.
DesLauriers changed his voter registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles, not the town clerk, so the date is meaningless. In an email exchange with me, here’s how DesLauriers explained it:
I moved here to Washington (Orange county) exactly a year ago now, last summer. I changed my address with the DMV when we first moved, and on their web site they offer to change your voter registration simultaneously – which I did. But when I actually went to vote in the [presidential] primary, I discovered I was still registered in Bolton and it had never gone through!
Oops. Somebody at the DMV needs a wake-up call.
Still, we only have DesLauriers’ word for it, and “exactly a year ago now” is mightily specific.
Okay, what’s next? How about, did he buy a house, and if so, when? He doesn’t own property in Washington. He’s living with a family who are longtime Washington residents. He told me he moved (from Bolton) because his fiancee wanted to be closer to her mother. He had no intention of running for office until months later, after a conversation with Rep. Davis, who was presumably looking around for a ticketmate.
So here we are. Is there any remaining doubt about DesLauriers’ residency status? I suppose so. We only have his word for it — although if pressed, I’m sure he could produce documentation of some sort. Personally, I doubt he’s made all this stuff up just so he could run for a House seat halfway across the state.
But here’s the thing. When it comes to a candidate’s bona fides, there’s pretty much no legal mechanism for checking up on them.
This came up recently when Norm McAllister (R-Purgatory) filed petitions to run for re-election to the Senate. He barely had enough signatures — but there is no statutory process fir reviewing petitions or vetting signatures. Clerks are not required to check signatures, merely to accept them. If someone had challenged his petitions there would have been a review, but otherwise no. (If I were running for office, I’d routinely check my opponents’ petitions. Dot the i’s and cross the t’s.)
Turns out, at least a few signatures were bogus, but by the time anyone noticed, it was too late to get him off the ballot.
Same thing with residency. A clerk might answer questions or iron out details with a prospective candidate, but is under no legal burden to do anything more than accept and file the paperwork.
And once a candidate is on the ballot, there is no provision for removal before Election Day, even if he unzips his head and reveals himself as Invader Zorb from the Planet Flimnark. (Probably lose some votes, though. You know how we feel about outsiders.)
Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But Adam DesLauriers would certainly stay on the ballot.
And the next step doesn’t happen until after the general election. If our hypothetical nonresident wins in November, any official of any town in the district, or any 25 voters in the district, can file a challenge on residency grounds. Such a challenge must be filed within 20 days of the election.
If a challenge is filed, it goes through a labyrinthine process. It goes to the Secretary of State, who forwards it to the Attorney General for investigation. The AG writes up a report and sends it to the Secretary of State, who forwards it on to the House or Senate.
The voters have nothing to do with it. Vermont’s oft-undemocratic Constitution gives our two legislative bodies sole authority to determine whether elected candidates are qualified to take office.
(If Norm McAllister wins in November, the Senate could decide to unseat him again.)
As with petition signatures, so with residency (and other) qualifications: it’s basically the honor system. And truth be told, it pretty much works. And it’d be wicked expensive to up-staff town clerks and/or the Secretary of State’s office to do the work of validating signatures and candidacies.
Still, it’s a little bit scary to learn just how ephemeral our electoral process is. Message to Invader Zorb: if you want to win a seat in Vermont’s High Council of Authority, chances are you can pull it off.
As long as you don’t unzip your head.