'I want to try to put some of those fears to rest'

Misinformation about elections instills fear in citizens, a departing senator says

PUTNEY — Voting is now taking place for the Nov. 8 election. There are many voices out there who are instilling fear in our citizens by spreading misinformation about elections.

I just read a piece by Nancy Gassett - Republican candidate for the House of Representatives in Guilford and Vernon - that used the tactic of instilling this fear, and I am aware of the same views coming from others. I will say that these views are not necessarily those of Republicans in general.

As chair of the Senate Committee on Government Operations for a number of years, I am very familiar with our election laws - they originate in that committee. So I want to try to put some of those fears to rest.

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First, though, let me say that we have campaign finance laws. One of the goals is to let voters know who is financing candidates and campaigns. That means that all campaign pieces, cards, signs, ads, etc. have to say who has paid for the message.

And that the candidate has to file a campaign finance report with the Secretary of State identifying who has contributed and how it has been spent.

Candidates know and understand what is expected of them. At least two candidates in Windham County - Lynn Kuralt and Nancy Gassett - have not complied with this law. Neither has filed a campaign finance report to disclose their contributors, and neither has put the identifying information on their election communications.

[Editor's note: On Oct. 28, Gassett filed three reports with the Vermont Secretary of State's Elections Division regarding campaign expenses and donations. On Nov. 1, Kuralt filed five reports.]

Some answers to some of the misinformation from Ms. Gassett's piece:

• “No protections or penalties for fraud.” In all the years that I have been taking testimony on elections we have had very few substantiations of fraud. Most town clerks testified that even when fraud was feared, many turned out to be misunderstandings. Those who register who shouldn't, including non-citizens, are subject to penalties under the perjury statutes.

• “Hurriedly passed mail-out.” We actually took almost two years of testimony from many sources. We addressed each issue that was brought up.

Town clerks were a very important part of the result. One advantage we heard of mailing out ballots was the ability to really know who the candidates are. Many people know some of the candidates but not all of them. This way, they can look at the ballot, investigate the candidates, and make wise choices. This research is harder to do at the ballot box.

• “All voters on all checklists will get ballots” - not true. We have a system for purging checklists, and town clerks are diligent in doing so. They do not want people on the lists that should not be.

Part of that includes a challenge letter sent to the voter. So for mail-out ballots, only those active voters will receive a ballot. If the voter has been challenged, they will not receive a mailed-out ballot.

• “Tabulators are mandated, and Vermonters don't trust them.” Approximately 140 towns have voted to use tabulators - that is a town decision. There is a mandate for towns with more than 1,000 registered voters. This was done with input from town clerks.

As far as trusting town clerks: When recounts are done, more errors are found in hand-counted ballots. (And there is a robust procedure for conducting periodic audits.)

• “Election month, not Election Day - ballots go out 40 days before Election Day.” That is true. The federal elections office requires all ballots going to those overseas - military and others - be mailed 45 days before Election Day, to guarantee that our service men and women's ballots count. If the ballots are ready then, they can go to all.

• “Harvesting ballots.” We heard no indication of this behavior in Vermont. Nevertheless, we added some restrictions: No candidate or campaign worker can deliver ballots. No one person can deliver more than 25. Town clerks will report to the Secretary of State if they feel this rule is being violated.

• “It is too easy to vote.” Voting is one of the main responsibilities of citizens in a democracy. We need to remove barriers so that everyone can have their voice heard.

• “Elected officials use favors and special treatment to get votes.” - I cannot tell you one Vermont elected official that I know of that has done that. They campaign and hope people will vote for them. But in the end, the vote is private. When I campaigned, I made no promises and asked people to vote for me but encouraged them to vote even if not for me.

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I have heard that election watchers are being recruited to purposely create havoc and violate the rules. As someone who respects our democracy, the integrity of our elections, and the peaceful transfer of power, it saddens me to think that people are targeting the democracy itself and not the issues to be resolved.

So if you hear horror stories and misinformation, check them out. And vote.

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