Vote fraud allegations examined, rejected
Local pair's claims called 'baseless' by Vt. secretary of state
BENNINGTON — State and local officials are continuing to reject the repeated allegations of multiple clerical errors or "fraud" in Bennington elections, voiced by a former Vermont House candidate and a current candidate for the town Select Board.
Kevin Hoyt, who ran unsuccessfully in 2018 as a Republican in the Bennington District 2-1 race, and Colleen Harrington, his partner, have repeatedly raised the allegations in recent months — detailed in Facebook posts, written complaints to state officials and during Select Board meetings.
Harrington also stated in a letter to Larry Novins, executive director of the Vermont Ethics Commission, and copied to the Secretary of State's Office, that she had "barely scratched the surface and uncovered 300 plus so-called `clerical errors' [during the 2018 election]. This is not acceptable to me or the citizens of Bennington County."
However, local officials, including the Select Board members, have rejected those claims, and said they trust the work of Town Clerk Cassandra Barbeau and her staff during elections — as has Secretary of State Jim Condos.
Condos wrote a letter to the board in early December, saying in part, "it has been my experience that Cassandra Barbeau, the Bennington town clerk, performs her elections-related duties professionally, with integrity, and in compliance with the laws."
In a letter sent this month to Harrington and Hoyt, in response to their further complaints, Condos said in part that "baseless public exclamations about voter fraud and the integrity of our elections can do real damage."
Demands an investigation
Hoyt has repeatedly demanded an investigation into errors and alleged fraud but contends government officials in Vermont — along with the Bennington Board of Civil Authority members — are refusing to look into his allegations.
"I got all the evidence, but the problem is nobody wants to look at it, none of the authorities," he said in a recent video posted on Facebook. "That's the story. None of our elected officials I think we should at least look."
Hoyt also alleged during one video that he believes he was "cheated" in the 2018 election, when he finished third among four candidates for two seats in the Bennington House 2-1 district. The results show Hoyt finishing 625 votes behind current Rep. Chris Bates for the second House seat.
But in a Feb. 14 letter to Harrington and Hoyt, Condos stated in part, "The information that you have provided our office thus far is in no way an indication of voter fraud. At this time, I am not aware of a single anomaly you have raised that is not either explainable, or within the letter of the law."
In addition to discrepancies between the clerk's official checklist of voters who cast ballots during an election and a report sent afterward to the Secretary of State's Office, Hoyt and Harrington also raised questions about student voting and voting by absentee ballot by former residents who now live out of the country.
Citing aspects of election law in his letter, Condos responded, "Your misunderstanding of the law is not an indicator that voter fraud, or `illegal behavior" as you call it, has occurred."
Referring to voting list discrepancies cited by Harrington in her letter, Condos said the report sent to his office after an election "is for statistical purposes only, to track turnout numbers for the various elections over time. Any discrepancies between this report and the official entrance checklist are most often simply the result of data entry errors and any such discrepancy does not in any way reflect that the ballots of any given voter were or were not counted."
Bar code issues
Concerning differences between the voter entrance checklist and the report sent afterward to the Secretary of State, Barbeau said during an interview that most were attributable to a bar code scanning system that was faster to tabulate the post-election report to the state but only "about 95 percent" accurate.
"Barcode scanning is offered [through the Secretary of State's office] for ease of entering data as an option in our statewide voter registration system," she said. "I found it to be glitchy and now obviously not entirely accurate — reflecting between 95 and 96 percent accuracy, based on that particular election. And I have decided not to use it going forward."
The clerk said her office will go back to the old method of counting by hand the list to be sent to the Secretary of State.
Town Manager Stuart Hurd noted that the list sent to the Secretary of State is in large part requested of town clerks so political candidates can obtain voter lists across Vermont without having to go to clerk offices by town.
"The participation lists themselves are for easy access for candidates and political parties," Barbeau said, while her voter check-in list is the official record for an election.
After reviewing the list of names posted by Hoyt and Harrington as reflecting discrepancies between the two lists or other irregularities, Barbeau said she found almost all were discrepancies between her checklist and the report to the state, which was tabulated using the inaccurate bar code system.
She said a few involved name changes, similar names, late entries to her voter checklist (the official election list), and last-day absentee ballot arrivals, all of which she has identified and which did not affect the election vote totals.
She added that there were "potentially a couple poll worker errors. A few poll worker errors are common for a town our size."
Entry check-off errors can occur, she said, but that doesn't affect the ballot the voter puts into the machine, which then counts those votes.
Condos also addressed poll worker errors in his letter, saying, "Errors do occur on those checklists — a poll worker may forget to check a name or check the wrong name during a particularly busy time ."
Board of Civil Authority
Barbeau and Hurd stressed during an interview that town elections are overseen by the local Board of Civil Authority, composed of 15 elected justices of the peace, the entire Select Board, Barbeau and Assistant Clerk Kayla Thompson.
In addition to including both Republicans and Democrats, the BCA is typically made up of people very well known in Bennington, whom voters are rightly trusting to oversee the election process and ensure fairness and accuracy, Hurd said.
Other than Select Board members and the clerk and assistant clerk, those currently serving include Gerald "Jerry" M. Albert, Barbara Bluto, Tom Haley III (who is on the annual town ballot this year and won't participate with the BCA); Michele Hogan, Jackie Kelly, Albert Krawczyk, Brian Maroney Jr., James H. Marsden, Anne Mook, Mary Morrissey, Warren Roaf, Marjorie Robinson, Aaron Sawyer, David Shaffe and Anna Kinney Swierad.
Bruce Lee-Clark, a Select Board member, also will not participate this year as he is on the town ballot.
State Rep. Jim Carroll, D-Bennington 2-2, who is also a Select Board member, said he believes it's an outrage that questions are being raised about the BCA, which his late father, Joseph F. Carroll Sr., chaired for 48 years.
"These are people duly elected by the community and considered to be trustworthy," he said. "For anybody to suggest that Anne Mook or David Shaffe or Al Krawczyk or Mary Morrissey would engage in a criminal conspiracy is outrageous."
Carroll said residents from different political parties "sit side by side" when overseeing elections and voting results.
Harrington also said in her letter to Novins, "Mr. Condos and Mr. [Director of Elections Will] Senning have failed not only Bennington County but the entire state of Vermont by not assisting in fair elections. Although they are not a regulator agency they certainly could request or `suggest' someone take a look."
She asked that Novins take action "in this extremely important matter."
In a telephone message, Novins, the Ethics Commission executive director, told the Banner on Tuesday that, "The long and the short of it is, our office has no authority over elections and how they are managed."
In his response to the Harrington letter, Condos in part, "Baseless public exclamations about voter fraud and the integrity of our elections can do real damage, Mr. Hoyt and Ms. Harrington. While your claims may stem from a misunderstanding of the law, conflating them to `massive voter fraud,' will only serve to diminish confidence by Vermonters in our democratic process. If even a single voter chooses not to exercise this constitutional right to cast a ballot because of inaccurate or misleading claims you've made, I would consider that a tragedy."
Condos commented further concerning the absentee ballot and student voting issues raised by Hoyt and Harrington, saying that "college students are allowed to register to vote in the town in which they reside while attending college, as long as they are otherwise eligible to vote. This is a long-established principle in both federal and state law, and has been upheld by the United States Supreme Court."
Referring to voters living in other countries, Condos said, "American citizens living abroad, as well as active duty members of the armed services, are entitled to remain registered and vote via absentee ballot in the last place in which they resided in the United States before moving overseas or enlisting."
Still has questions
Reached Tuesday concerning the Condos letter, Harrington fired back, saying in part, "You would think an honest town clerk who is provided with spreadsheets and documentation would want to look at the information to determine her procedures are accurate. Cassandra Barbeau wishes not to look at anything because she already knows there are massive discrepancies which she does not want brought out into the light of day."
Hoyt also restated his complaints of mistakes and voter fraud Tuesday, saying his bottom line is that there needs to be an investigation.
"Absolutely, there was fraud," he said, "and somebody has to investigate."
He said he also has contacted the state Attorney General's office over the complaints but has not received a response.
The AG's office did not respond as of press time Tuesday to a Banner request for comment on those complaints.
Harrington questioned in particular a person reportedly living in Canada since the mid-1970s who is listed as continuing to vote in Bennington.
She said on Tuesday, "The only reason I continue to send the information to [the Secretary of State's Office] is so when the IRS comes down on the town for 45 years of tax evasion concerning [the absentee voter in Canada], which occurred with the assistance of our town clerk, no one will be able to say they didn't know."
Harrington, who said she had contacted the Internal Revenue Service, also vowed to contact the U.S. Attorney's office and the Federal Elections Unit, contending expatriate voting rules were broken "with the assistance of Cassandra Barbeau."
Barbeau cited Condos' comments about absentee voters who reside outside the country, adding, "As far as I know [the voter] is eligible to vote."
The clerk added that there are on average about 500 people casting absentee ballots, most of whom live here but won't be at the polls on election day. Another 100 reside in other states and 25 live abroad, the clerk said.
In all, there are nearly 10,000 names on the town checklist, and more than 5,400 voted in the 2018 national election.
'Nothing to hide'
"I think it is important for people to understand that I'm here and I have nothing to hide," Barbeau said. "If someone has a question, just ask me."
She added that whenever there are questions of whether a particular vote should be counted — such as when an absentee ballot arrives late or is unsigned or when a ballot is damaged — the BCA makes the determination.
Otherwise, all ballots, including absentee ballots, are fed through the voting machines and counted in that way. In the case of write-in votes, the machine will count all the votes except for that one contest and divert those ballots to a separate pile so they can be examined by poll workers, Barbeau said.
"It is very, very rare for a vote not to count, and that is up to the board," she said.
The BCA also oversees any recount when an election result is close.
The voter checklist is regularly reviewed and updated, Barbeau said, but there can be a lag time when people leave the area.
Her office has to wait four years to remove those names without further confirmation, she said, and more than 2,000 currently are on a "challenged" list of those who haven't been voting and may have moved. If they show up to vote or confirm they have moved, that status is updated, she said.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien
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