This isn’t going to matter in the end, because the House Government Operations Committee is going to approve some version of S.15, a bill to improve voter access and the electoral process. But one of the three Republicans on the committee is making a fool of herself by injecting the kind of conspiracy thinking that’s normally absent from legislative debate or mainstream Vermont politics.
All three Republicans are trying to throw cold water on the idea of mail-in ballots, drop boxes and other provisions that drove voter turnout to historic levels last year. Absurd hypotheticals were bustin’ out all over. But first-term Rep. Samantha Lefebvre (R-QAnon) is lapping the field in persistent nuttiness.
(By the way, we’ve got Lefebvre this year instead of defeated Democrat Carl Demrow, which is about as bad a tradeoff as Art Peterson for Dave Potter. 2020 was a sneaky bad year for House Democrats.)
On at least two separate occasions, Lefebvre floated a serious accusation that somebody heard on a call-in radio program without being able to offer any specifics.
So, the details. Apparently, somebody called in to WVMT’s “The Morning Drive with Marcus and Kurt” and said that a Middlebury landlord had seen Middlebury College students collecting and filling out unclaimed absentee ballots. I’m going to reproduce her question in full below, because it’s a real beaut.
The guest on the show was Secretary of State Jim Condos. He urged the caller to file a report so it could be investigated.
This didn’t stop Lefebvre from flogging this third-hand anonymous accusation of something that allegedly happened six months ago as proof that mail-in ballots are an open invitation to vote fraud.
And, of course, neither the caller nor the landlord nor anyone else on God’s green earth ever filed a report with Condos’ office. Hey, it’s easier to push a conspiracy theory if you don’t have to provide actual evidence.
And now, for your delectation, here is Lefebvre asking a single question during an April 21 hearing. You might want to leave a trail of bread crumbs as you make your way through this impenetrable thicket.
Last week on The Morning Drive with Marcus and Kurt, someone called in claiming that a landlord in Middlebury who witnessed college students collecting and filling out unclaimed absentee ballots, and they were sent to other students who had graduated and moved out, but now these new students were taking them and it was not in their name. So hypothetically speaking, and we saw lots of incidents of ballots showing up at wrong addresses, but thankfully people had done the right thing and turned them back or reported to you, like hey, this shouldn’t belong here. But could this happen? And if it is happening, how would the, your office, either at the state level or the local level, detect and trace and rectify this? Because we have seen it, when we heard from you at the beginning of this session we have heard that there were some cases of this, so, if we’re going to be moving this way, how can we rectify when these incidents occur?
Yikes. Backing away slowly…
The answer, from Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters (who, not for nothin’, has a magnificent head of pandemic hair): “We haven’t heard anything about it. No one has filed a specific complaint.”
Despite this definitive answer, Lefebvre held this third-hand rumor close to her heart and went over the exact same ground at an April 29 hearing. I’ll spare you the transcript this time. Winters and Elections Director Will Senning provided the same answers in a bit more depth.
“If we had a specific address where this supposedly took place, we would see who was registered at that address, reach out to the individuals who were registered there, and ask them if they voted,” said Winters. “There are a lot of different ways to check. But we need specifics in order to act on these things.”
Lefebvre pressed on regardless. “What stops the state from doing their own investigation to show that we, as a state, uphold vote integrity?”
Winters: “We can’t chase ghosts. We need some specifics to act on. …We have harsh penalties on the books, and we will take action. But we can’t chase hypotheticals and allegations.”
Winters and Senning provided plenty of evidence that vote fraud, “ballot harvesting” and the like simply aren’t an issue. “We had zero complaints of stolen or damaged ballots” in 2020, Senning said. “In 2018, I did refer maybe three or four to the Attorney General’s Office, and one of those did result in community service. I believe it was a young person who had submitted a ballot both by mail and in person.”
They also outlined all the steps taken to ensure election integrity. Vermont’s voter checklist is “the most accurate it’s ever been,” said Winters. He then made the definitive argument against the entire “vote fraud” canard:
There are severe criminal penalties for impersonating a voter. You sign a ballot under penalty of perjury. Risking potential jail time to try to change an election one ballot at a time isn’t something that most people would think is worth it. …We’re just not seeing it happen.
This was more than good enough for most committee members, although I suspect that Lefebvre still places more faith in what she heard about an anonymous phone call than the official testimony of our top election officials.
The other two Republicans on the committee were far more diplomatic, although Rep. Mark Higley repeatedly hammered on signature verification, a time-intensive process with no proven value that, again, is aimed at solving a problem that doesn’t exist.
In the end, Republicans can’t stop S.15 from passing. Gov Ops chair Sarah Copeland Hanzas made it clear that the bill will be moved out of committee and onto the House floor in the very near future. At that stage, we might get more conspiratorial stylings from the fringier elements of the Republican caucus. It won’t make any difference, but it’s another cautionary tale of what the GOP would get up to if they did have a majority.