The Jake and Jack Show, also featuring… er… what’s his name

A House committee appears to be backing away from a bill that would restrict the ability of third parties to submit absentee ballot requests. Leaders of Vermont’s three largest parties all spoke against H.21 at a hearing of the House Government Operations Committee, and their testimony appeared to be persuasive. By the end of the hearing, the bill’s primary sponsor, Randolph Democrat Larry Townsend, openly talked of killing his bill in favor of “some good ideas” brought up during the session.

The bill would require a voter’s signature on any absentee application submitted by a third party who is not a relative or health care provider. It was inspired by reports of voter confusion around Election Day 2012; some voters were unsure whether they had applied for an absentee ballot or not. Some claimed that applications were submitted without their knowledge. In writing H.21, Townsend was seeking to block outsiders from filling out applications for unknowing voters.  

All three political parties testified in opposition to the bill, on the grounds that helping voters with the absentee process helps build turnout. It’s common practice for party workers and candidates to help voters submit absentee requests, or even fill out and submit the requests on behalf of voters.

The witness list for the hearing was short: Progressive State Rep. Chris Pearson, followed by Jake Perkinson (Democratic Party), Jack Lindley (VTGOP) and Robert Millar, the new executive director of the Progressive Party.

Pearson spoke first, started his case clearly, took a few questions, and left to attend to his legislative duties elsewhere. Then Perkinson testified, followed by Lindley. After that, a sort of general colloquy broke out, with several questions directed at both Perkinson and Lindley.

Meanwhile, on a bench along the wall, sat Robert Millar.

After the jump: MIllar finally gets a shot, and Angry Jack is never far from the surface.

I guess no one on the committee knew what he looks like. (Someone actually gestured in my direction, as though I was the Prog Party chair. I took it as a compliment.) Eventually someone noticed Millar, and he was belatedly invited to give his testimony.

It was an unfortunate moment. His presentation was brief and punchless, and he was an uncompelling figure. Admittedly he faced difficult circumstances: Pearson had presented a Progressive case already, then Perkinson and Lindley gave very similar testimony, which didn’t leave Millar with much to add. He may have been understandably deflated because the committee kept him in the on-deck circle too long.

I don’t know Robert Millar. He may be a very effective party builder, which is what the Progs need right now. But judging by today’s appearance, public speaking is not his strong suit. The Progs would have been better served by letting Pearson represent them on his own.

Okay, enough inside baseball. As for those “other good ideas” that might actually find their way into legislation, the focus was on transparency and disclosure. Perkinson called for “accountability for those requesting a ballot for someone else,” by openly identifying the requestor and his/her affiliation. (Party, candidate, advocacy group, etc.) He said it’s standard practice for Democratic volunteers and candidates to offer clear identification. He also called for a statewide database of absentee-ballot requests.

All three party leaders agreed with one lawmaker’s suggestion for unmissable disclosure on any mailer or brochure that includes absentee materials: the name of the sender and other pertinent information would be printed in the largest type font used anywhere else on the material.

Lindley echoed his colleagues’ concerns about the bill’s potential for limiting voter participation. But he took advantage of the occasion to rattle off some Republican bumpf on the mythical plague of voter fraud. He called for increased penalties for violators of election law — a $1,000 fine instead of $100. He spoke ominously of those “who play on the dark side.” When asked what he meant, he said “People using techniques that we would find foreign in terms of manipulating elections.”

Ooh, “foreign.” Any particular country you have in mind, Jack? Kenya, perhaps?

When asked if there was any sign of voter fraud in Vermont, he admitted “Not yet.” He even acknowledged that the VTGOP lost the 2012 election “fair and square”; he simply wants to keep it that way.

Since the actual topic of H.21 was disposed of in short order, the discussion drifted onto unrelated campaign issues — specifically, the rise of PACs and Super PACs. Lindley spoke of a day in the future when lawmakers would represent PACs, not districts or constituents. And here’s where Millar staged a brief rally on behalf of Progressive principle. Perkinson and Lindley joined arms (metaphorically) in a call to lift limits on individual donations to candidates and parties — in order to level the playing field with Super PACs, which operate without limits.

That would, of course, “level the playing field” at a much higher dollar figure. MIllar insisted the right course is to refuse entry into this financial “arms race,” and instead focus on overturning the US Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United ruling.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) afternoon, by the way, the Senate Government Operations Committee will hold a hearing on campaign finance reform — a measure that has generally attracted support from all three parties and VPIRG. We’ll see if it sails through, or if lawmakers exercise their creative skills in finding areas of disagreement.  

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