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Voting without the voter

Posted October 27, 2006

The stakes for the Nov. 7 elections are high — very high. And, every politician, political party, and even independent knows it. So, it’s not secret that both parties have been proactively recruiting voters — new and old. Both parties, too, have been pushing for more voters to vote absentee. In other words, why wait for the polls to open if you already know whom you want to support.

However, this aggressive push has brought to light a practice that doesn’t sit well with some voters. Nor should it.

Vermont GOP Chairman Jim Barnett is accusing Democratic Party and Sanders for Senate campaign operatives of completing request forms by proxy for registered voters and in some cases, doing so without the permission of the voter themselves, which is against the law.

Barnett sent a letter to town clerks around the state last week urging them to be wary of ballots being requested via campaign workers.

At the same time, however, Barnett said his party has adopted this tactic to “ensure a level electoral playing field.”

He also wrote, “Unfortunately, the Democrat Party and the Sanders campaign have opened the flood gates to what could turn Vermont into the Florida of 2000 or the Washington State of 2004. … If you find cases of unauthorized requests, I hope you will keep a record of your conversation with the voter. This will help you sort out confusion on Election Day and could provide important evidence should lawsuits arise as a result of vote fraud or mail fraud in connection with the Democrats’ absentee ballot program.”
This part of Barnett’s letter has raised the hackles of both the Sanders campaign and the Democratic Party.

“I don’t understand why the Republicans are opposed to making it easier for Vermonters to exercise their right to vote. If Jim Barnett is already planning to use the same voter suppression techniques that Republicans used in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004, it’s just another demonstration of how desperate they are to hang on to power.”

Maybe it’s we who don’t understand. Having a campaign operative filling out someone’s absentee ballot request (possibly making mistakes in the process and making the request null and void) just seems wrong and suspect.

Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, who is a Democrat, says as long as the voter gives the person the authorization to fill out the form, it’s OK.

In the past, campaign workers have been able to provide people with absentee ballot request forms — and have even delivered them to the town clerk’s office (also a little suspect in our opinion). But, to fill out the form, too? What’s next? Filling out the ballot?

The GOP may be protesting a bit too much (since they are now doing the same thing), but they raise a valid point that needs addressing before the next election and should be examined during this election: Are people turned away at the polls because they were sent an absentee ballot they didn’t ask for?

There are remedies at the polls, and so voters aren’t likely to be disenfranchised the way in which so many voters were in Florida and Ohio — most of them African American thanks to actions taken largely by GOP election officials who purged voting lists and moved polling places at the last minute and with little notice.

Get out the vote efforts, while admirable in making sure that enough people — including those often disenfranchised — have their voice heard through the ballot box, are more about numbers than about informing voters of their full options.

We would argue that a non-partisan group, or a special project of the Vermont State Colleges and the University of Vermont, should devise a voter education outreach effort to focus on ensuring that voters know that they don’t have to vote only on Election Day, and help them get hold of the forms they need.

It’s all well and good to make it easy for people to vote, and to vote early, but it should be voters’ choice on their terms and not through aggressive telemarketing or through a surrogate. The only people who should be allowed to be such a surrogate should be a family member, caregiver, or someone with a truly direct and provable link to the voter. In other words, a human paper trail.

READER’S NOTE: Due to the large volume of election-related letters, we are only printing a portion of them in this week’s edition. You can see additional letters on our website, www.vermontguardian.com.