(This article was originally credited to Bob Morris when the actual author was William Boardman. Our apologies.)
Early Tuesday evening, Vermont Public Radio, (VPR) put out a story about the Romney campaign challenging absentee balloting in Vermont, and got it badly wrong. Other news operations repeated the story, getting it just as wrong in the Burlington Free Press, the Barre Times Argus, the BrattleboroReformer and others, on out into the virtual news world.
“Romney Camp Decries Vermont Absent Voting Preparations” was the identical headline in each of those media, giving credence to some problem with absentee ballots. That problem, according to an unsupported Romney Campaign claim was that the Vermont Secretary of State’s “office’s delays caused 53 municipalities to violate the 45-day ballot-transmission deadline for the November 6, 2012 general election.”
In fairness, these media were all parroting the original, erroneous story from the Associated Press (AP), which re-packaged the bogus claim from the Romney Campaign in Washington without verifying it independently.
The accusatory letter to Secretary of State James Condos that falsely asserts “your office’s violations of military voting rights” is the official position of the Romney Campaign. According to Condos, “The Romney campaign emailed the letter to the press…. We first heard of it and received a copy from the Associated Press.”
The two-page, single spaced letter is dated September 25 and addressed to Condos, in care of Kathy Scheele, Director of Elections, with a copy to the U.S. Dept. of Justice. The letter is signed by Anthony Principi, former U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs under President Bush, and national chair of the “Veterans and Military Families for Romney Coalition.”
Although the letter asserts “violations” four different times, only the U.S. Dept. of Justice can make that initial determination. What the letter alleges to be a violation is that unspecified “delays” by the Secretary of State’s office somehow caused some unspecified number of absentee ballots to be sent out after the legal deadline of September 22.
Condos acknowledged that some ballots may have gone out late, but his office needs to review the record with the town clerks who are responsible for actually mailing out absentee ballots to military and overseas voters under state law.
As explained by Bryan Whitener of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission in Washington, the absentee ballot requirement “falls under the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act of 2010 (“MOVE Act”), which amended the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA). The Secretary of Defense has administrative responsibilities for UOCAVA. Within the Department of Defense, the Secretary has assigned these responsibilities to the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP). The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is the agency charged with enforcing all federal election laws.”
Condos has provided a copy of the Vermont absentee ballot report filed with DOJ as required by law. That report lists all the state’s 834 absentee ballot requests by individual voters, grouped by town. Reviewing that report shows that there may be as many as 46 apparently un-sent ballots scattered among 20 towns. At this point no one knows if some ballots were not sent because the voter came home or died, for example.
The Romney Campaign’s letter falsely claimed 53 “municipalities” violated the law, without naming one.
The Romney Campaign’s letter falsely asserted that the Vermont Secretary of State has some oversight authority over Vermont’s town clerks.
The state’s ballot report shows that some of the un-sent ballots were requested after the deadline. It shows that many requests that came in close to the Saturday deadline had ballots sent the out early the following week.
As Condos observed, “Many of those went out on Monday, by email, which means that the recipients will actually receive their ballots before anyone who receives it by snail mail – kind of ironic.”
The Romney Campaign letter notes that it had sent a previous letter of concern, but omits one of the reasons for that concern: the state had to complete an unexpectedly complicated recount of the Progressive Party’s race for the governor nomination before ballots could be printed. Neither the state nor the towns do recounts. The recounts were handled by the counties, but dependent on the towns. When it was over, this race was on its third official final total.
The Romney Campaign letter concludes with Principi saying, “If I may be of any assistance as your office and the U.S. Department of Justice attempt to
correct your office’s violations of military voting rights, please do not hesitate to contact me.” But the letter includes no personal contact information other than the campaign website URL.
For days the Romney Campaign spokespersons have been saying that this ballot issue wasn’t “political,” just an effort to help the troops vote. But the Vermont letter was apparently coordinated with a similar letter in support of Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown. And the same erroneous AP story managed to turn up on the onpolitix.com website for at least three other states, New York, Virginia, andFlorida.
Vermont’s Fox News station took the same AP report as everyone else and re-wrote it to make it slightly harsher.
And 24 hours after running the inaccurate AP story, VPR posted a less inaccurate version that still treated the claim as credible, but also as “a taste of presidential politics.” The story quotes a Middlebury College professor to the effect that Romney’s effort won’t affect the result in Vermont, but could be a plus for him in other states, like New Hampshire.
None of the subsequent clarifications explain why the Vermont Secretary of State didn’t challenge the factual inaccuracies as soon as he was aware of them.
Nor does any of this explain why, if the Romney Campaign is serious about defending the right to vote, it hasn’t challenged the latest voting list purge in Florida, an effort to challenge voters’ citizenship even though some of them already proved it during similar purge efforts earlier this year.