By Jim Condos, Vermont’s Secretary of State
I’ve never been known to sugarcoat things, so I’m going to be frank. Recent events are causing increasing concerns that our democracy is in peril. Let me explain.
Voting is the foundation of our democracy. Since my first day as Secretary of State, and before that as a State Senator, I’ve worked to encourage voter participation by breaking down barriers to ensure eligible Vermont citizens are able to vote.
First, let me say I am proud to live in a state where our focus is on increasing access to the ballot box. To this end, we’ve made great progress in Vermont.
In January, we implemented same-day voter registration, making it easier for Vermonters to register and vote on Election Day.
Also in January, with the Department of Motor Vehicles, we implemented automatic voter registration – when an eligible voter receives/renews their license at the DMV they are either registered to vote, or their registration updates their current address, providing for more accurate voter lists and even greater election integrity.
Both same-day and automatic voter registration passed Vermont’s legislature with strong tri-partisan support, and I was proud to initiate and support these important objectives.
Here’s the point: because voting is the foundation of our democracy, government has a responsibility to make voting easy and accessible for every eligible voter. Unfortunately, across this country, we are seeing an increased erosion of voting rights in many states.
I am deeply troubled by the announcement that the President signed an executive order establishing a commission to review alleged voter fraud in our elections. Since the 2016 election, President Trump has made repeated unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud. Credible studies have shown over and over again that widespread voter fraud simply does not exist, and election officials from across the country, Democrat and Republican, agree.
So why the brazen claims of widespread voter fraud?
I believe these unproven claims are an effort to set the stage to weaken and skew our democratic process through a systematic national effort of voter suppression and intimidation.
Let’s be honest: the real voter fraud that is occurring is the active campaign to roll back voting rights. The President’s unsubstantiated claims have emboldened these efforts. Photo ID laws, like those in Texas, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Alabama, force citizens to travel over 100 miles to their closest DMV, even though they might be poor, disabled, or unable to drive. Other states have also pursued enactment of some form of voter ID law, many of which have been found by the courts to be outright unconstitutional.
Restrictions on early voting periods, limiting access, due to distance or time, to registration and voting locations, and overly aggressive purging of eligible voters from voter rolls are all examples of ways in which some states are suppressing voter participation and discouraging certain eligible voters from having a voice in elections.
These attacks on voting rights have a sole aim: to disenfranchise lower-income, student, senior and minority voters. It’s that simple, and the courts have started to recognize this.
The fact that Vice President Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach have been announced as Chair and Vice Chair of this commission confirms my worst fears. Both are unabashed supporters of restrictive voter ID laws, as they exaggerate claims of voter fraud.
Secretary Kobach has championed some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country. The leadership of this commission is a clear prelude to what I expect to be a reinvigorated nationwide campaign promoting strict voter suppression laws and voter intimidation.
How do we fight back? We start at home and lead by example. Automatic voter registration is a system every state, regardless of the party in power, can and should support. Everyone should stand behind generous early voting periods and ample registration opportunities right up to, and even on the same day as an election.
Our Vermont elections will continue to put voters first.
In the coming months and years ahead, we need leaders to stand up and denounce these attacks on our democratic ideals. We must make decisions about how we conduct our elections based on facts, not fear. We cannot allow the President’s unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud scare us into unravelling the threads of our democratic process.
We must continue to move forward, not backwards – our democracy is at stake.
It is always our great pleasure to share the words of Sec. of State Jim Condos with our GMD readers. The topic this time is especially meaningful to me. – S.P.
“The Vermont Constitution (Chapter 1, Article 6) demands that our elected officials are open, transparent, and accountable. The authors understood how transparency in government is the very basis of trust. State statute also demands access and accountability:
It is the policy of this subchapter to provide for free and open examination of records consistent with Chapter I, Article 6 of the Vermont Constitution. Officers of government are trustees and servants of the people and it is in the public interest to enable any person to review and criticize their decisions even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment. (1 V.S.A. § 315)
The overwhelming majority of our dedicated local and state public officials are trustworthy, hard-working individuals striving to better the lives of those they serve. They are people who give generously of their time and want to do the right thing.
However, corruption can exist, and seemingly innocent conflicts of interest pop up everywhere in a small state like Vermont. These issues, even in small doses, can be just as corrosive to our democracy as more prominent scandals, undermining the public trust.
The key to our democracy is the public’s access to open and transparent government. This sacred trust must not be taken lightly. We must restore and improve that accountability or risk Vermonters’ faith in our ability to govern.
Vermont remains one of only a handful of states without an Ethics Commission. The 2015 Center for Public Integrity ranking of the states had Vermont with an overall grade of D-. Essentially, this ranking exists because we do not have an independent ethics commission or the required financial disclosures existing in nearly every other state.
Vermont can and must do better!
The time has come for Vermont to enact a clear ethics law with a code of ethics and financial disclosure for our elected officials.
The time has come for Vermont to create an independent ethics commission to provide education and insight, addressing ethical issues across the Legislative, Executive, and Municipal sections of government.
I am encouraged by the Legislature’s growing enthusiasm around the issue, as well as the Governor’s supportive statements during his campaign. I am hopeful this will translate into meaningful ethics reform.
To be effective, a commission must be independent, adequately resourced, and empowered to fairly and impartially field and investigate complaints from the public.
Yes – this will require a budget and a small staff, but these investments will be a small price to pay for a more accountable government and a place where affected Vermonters can seek redress and where unsure government officials can seek advice.
Establishing an ethics committee will not suddenly provide government with a moral compass. However, it will be a step in the right direction and by shining a brighter light on improved transparency and accountability.”
-Jim Condos, Vermont’s Secretary of State
It seems incredible that such a measure should be necessary to reassure the voters of Vermont, but in the wake of unsupported claims by Donald Trump of widespread voter fraud, our Secretary of State, Jim Condos, has felt compelled to set the record straight:
By Jim Condos, Vermont Secretary of State
Recent unsupported allegations and sensationalized reporting are sowing seeds of doubt about our democratic process. This undermines voter confidence and calls into question whether all voices will be heard on November 8th.
As Vermont’s Secretary of State and chief elections officer, former State Senator, former City Councilor, and lifelong voter, I’ve been following our elections my entire adult life. I am frustrated by the careless way in which these stories attack our very democracy. They show a real lack of understanding of the true risks.
I’d like to set the record straight.
Vermont’s elections will not be “rigged” and “voter fraud” is essentially non-existent here and across the U.S. In fact, a Loyola University study by constitutional law professor Justin Levitt found just 31 instances of potential voter fraud between 2000 and 2014. According to Levitt, more than 1 BILLION ballots (local, state, federal) were cast in that period.
Vermont’s elections process is nonpartisan, transparent and decentralized to the town level. Any hacking or altering of results would require a conspiracy on a massive scale.
I can assure Vermonters we have taken every precaution to insure our elections are secure. I’m confident my elections team, our IT security staff, law enforcement, and local election officials will continue to protect the integrity of our electoral process.
I have faith in our system, and you should too. Here’s why:
Vermont’s Election process is decentralized – to the local level. Someone trying to influence or change an election would have to hack into each town’s vote tabulators.
- Our tabulators are not connected to each other, the internet or any other software – eitherhard-wired or wireless.
- It has been suggested that the memory cards (MCs) in these machines could be tampered with, but from the time the MCs are delivered, 2-4 weeks before the election, the clerks are instructed to keep them secure. As long as the MC is stored securely, it cannot be manipulated.
- 10-14 days before the election, the clerks complete a logic & accuracy test on the MCs.
- Vermont requires a paper ballot for our statewide elections. That ballot is sealed, secured and stored for 22 months after each statewide election.
After each General election, we randomly audit several towns to insure results are accurate.
Another story that makes for great headlines is the risk of cyberattacks.
Are we vulnerable? There is always a risk and there will always be vulnerabilities, but the risk has been overstated. There are only two confirmed cases of successful hacking in other states, and those breeches were of voter registration databases having nothing to do with election results.
In Vermont, we have taken many precautions to secure our systems and data including a cyber risk assessment, penetration test, and firewalls. We are on high alert and in contact with federal law enforcement to identify and respond to any threats as they arise.
I have faith in our hard-working city/town clerks, local elections officials, and volunteer poll workers who conduct Vermont’s elections. We work directly with those individuals, providing
training, supplies, and other support.
They appreciate voting and cherish it as a fundamental right. They know what it means for democracy and are passionate about ensuring free and fair elections and careful, accurate results. To say that elections will be “rigged” or “hacked” or voter fraud is “very common” ignores the facts and insults their integrity.
Regrettably, the more harmful effect of casting unfounded aspersions is to rattle our confidence and prevent us from voting or trusting the outcome of those votes – a direct attack on democracy. That should concern us all, making us even more determined not to allow such threats to work.
I’m confident in our democratic process and how we have secured our elections. While there will always be vulnerabilities and risks, Vermonters should know they can go to the polls on November 8th and cast their ballots with the full expectation that their votes will be counted and their voices will be heard.
Remember, Your Vote is Your Voice!
Jim Condos is Vermont’s Secretary of State. Vermont’s voter registration deadline is November 2 @ 5PM. Register by visiting your town clerk or online at www.olvr.sec.state.vt.us.
It is always my pleasure to share Jim Condos’ words on any subject with GMD readers. Open government has been Sec. Condos’ priority since he first stepped into the office. It is a topic near and dear to my heart so it is a particular pleasure to bring this to you:
Sunshine Week, celebrated nationwide this week, is about opening the blinds and letting the sun shine in on government.
My long understanding about Open Government’s importance began while growing up in VT and is based on 18 years on the South Burlington City Council, 6 years on the VT League of Cities and Towns Board, 8 years in the VT Senate, and 5+ years as VT’s Secretary of State.
VT’s history has several examples of Vermonters who support Open Government – including former state legislator Matthew Lyon – jailed in 1798 for his beliefs; U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) – strong advocacy of Federal Freedom of Information; and my work with current Democratic Governor Peter Shumlin, to strengthen VT public records laws.
Who can argue against open and transparent government? It means different things to different people. Arguments can be clouded with misinterpretations of the law, personal interests, and other factors. It also is easier to make decisions when nobody is watching.
The vast majority of our elected state/local officials are trustworthy, dedicated and passionate individuals who want to do the right thing. However, corruption can exist. In small doses corruption can be just as corrosive to our democracy as any prominent scandal, undermining the public’s trust.
There are many cases in the news where public and elected officials have clashed on their interpretation of laws covering public meetings and/or public records. Sometimes one side is clearly right – the other side is clearly wrong. Sometimes there is grey area in the law that is open for interpretation.
However, even with these grey areas, Vermont’s Constitution and state statutes have always been clear in their fundamental intent: VT’s public officials ARE accountable to the people.
From the Vermont Constitution, Chapter 1, Article 6:
“That all power being originally inherent in and consequently derived from the people, therefore, all officers of government, whether legislative or executive, are their trustees and servants; and at all times, in a legal way, accountable to them.”
This is the very basis of public office – elected officials represent the people and are accountable to the people.
And just in case there was any confusion over the intent of Article 6, the VT statutes for Open Meeting Laws (1 V.S.A. § 311(a)) says:
“…the legislature finds and declares that public commissions, boards and councils and other public agencies in this state exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business and are accountable to them pursuant to Chapter I, Article VI of the Vermont constitution.”
Sunshine Week should be every week, and every day!
VT’s open meeting law recognizes that the media and the public are one and the same; AND they are entitled to: properly warned public meetings; posting of meeting agendas; an opportunity to express one’s opinion on matters considered by the public body during the meeting; knowing why a public body is going into Executive Session; and, the posting/availability of minutes 5 days after the meeting – even if in draft form.
Let’s continue this journey, that all public bodies conduct the business of the people and are, thus, accountable to the people.
Again, from the VT statutes (1 V.S.A. § 315), Access to Public Records:
“…to provide for free and open examination of records consistent with Chapter I, Article 6 of the Vermont Constitution. Officers of government are trustees and servants of the people and it is in the public interest to enable any person to review and criticize their decisions even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment.”
These excerpts support a mandate on government (state and local) transparency so the people of VT know what is happening in their government. The only time the people lose their “right to know” is when greater harm to an individual or the state could come from releasing certain information. However, in these very rare cases, the burden of proof for withholding information is on the state and the exemption must be laid out in statute.
Public records are defined as: “…any written or recorded information, regardless of physical form or characteristics, which is produced or acquired in the course of public agency business.” 1 V.S.A. § 317(b)
The courts have upheld the notion that the public’s access to records “shall be liberally construed to implement this policy, and the burden of proof shall be on the public agency to sustain its action.”
This means if that which is being disputed falls in a gray area – the courts will likely fall on the side of disclosure.
Simply, illegal meetings and improperly withheld public records offend our notions of openness, accountability, and the core of our democracy.
Open Government just makes good sense for officials and the people they serve. So, to any public officials reading this – please think twice about what you “text,” “tweet” or “email” a fellow board member or constituent. Those messages can all constitute government work and be classified public records.
And to the public, in Vermont, you do have a right to know!
Let the sun shine in and on government – let’s restore our faith in government.
Jim Condos, Vermont’s 38th Secretary of State, has served since January 2011.