Portions of this story were updated on Monday, September 28, 2020, to reflect new details on Scott Milne's voting record provided by the Pomfret town clerk. The revelations call into question a line of attack levied by a super PAC supporting Molly Gray.
The most contentious issue in the race for Vermont's No. 2 office has nothing to do with an actual policy or proposal.
Rather, for Democrat Molly Gray, Republican Scott Milne, their campaigns and supporters, the lieutenant gubernatorial race has become a tit-for-tat dispute over voting records — one that seems likely to persist right up through the election.
Though the debate covered issues surrounding racial justice, the economy, health care and more, some of the more memorable moments came as the two candidates discussed Gray's voting record.
Gray, who works as a prosecutor in the Attorney General's Office, has for weeks been criticized and questioned about the fact that she has only participated in two general elections over the last dozen years: 2008 and 2018. Addressing the matter early on Thursday in response to a reader-submitted question, she said she was not "proud" of being an "inconsistent voter."
But she then falsely claimed to have only skipped the 2010, 2012 and 2014 elections. "I voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and I proudly voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but was unable to have my vote counted because I was serving overseas," she said, referring to her work abroad for a human rights monitoring organization.
That answer didn't jibe with the explanation she'd given for weeks: that she tried to cast an absentee ballot in 2016 multiple times while living in Switzerland but ultimately failed to do so. Asked to clarify the discrepancy on Friday, Gray's campaign said that she had misspoken at the debate and had indeed not cast any ballot that year.
Milne did not dispute Gray's timeline in the moment; his campaign manager, Sen. Corey Parent (R-Franklin), noted the misstep in a press release an hour after the debate ended.
Milne did, however, bring up the issue again later in the evening, asking Gray why Vermonters should elect her to cast votes for them as lieutenant governor — which only occurs in the rare cases of a tie in the Senate — when "you haven't really taken ownership of voting?"
Gray responded by asking Milne whether he has voted in every election for which he's been eligible.
“No," he said. "But I have a consistent record over my lifetime of being a voter, and you have a consistent record of not being a voter." He later said, "You don't have a record of being an engaged citizen until you want to be an engaged lieutenant governor."
Pressed for an answer, Gray restated her earlier response. She then argued that it is wrong to "vote-shame Vermonters" at a time when "we need to bring every Vermonter to the table, particularly a generation that may or may not have at particular points in their life" been engaged.
"I know my opponent wants to make this election about me, but this election is not about me," she said. "This election is about coming out of this crisis stronger."
The exchange was tense but expected. Milne's campaign has sharply criticized Gray's voting record since the primary ended, clearly viewing the issue as one that resonates with voters.
Less than 24 hours later, though, a left-leaning super PAC accused Milne of being "dishonest" about his own record.
"A review of the electronic voter file, which holds records as far back as 2008, shows that Scott Milne doesn’t in fact have a 'consistent record' over his lifetime and shows he missed seven votes in statewide elections since 2008," the Alliance for a Better Vermont Fund wrote in a press release on Friday morning.
The group attached a screenshot of Milne's electronic voter file that showed he missed votes in two presidential primaries (2008 and 2012) and four state primaries (2008, 2010, 2012 and 2018), as well as the 2010 general election. The group also accused three members of Milne's campaign — Parent, press secretary Mike Donohue and former campaign coordinator Janet Metz — of having spotty records of their own.
“Taking the opportunity to lie about his own record in an attempt to disparage a candidate is appalling and Vermonters deserve better,” Ashley Moore, director of Alliance for a Better Vermont, said in the release.
The alliance registered as a super PAC with the Secretary of State's Office just three days ago. That designation allows it to raise and spend unlimited funds, but it cannot coordinate directly with campaigns. Moore told Seven Days on Friday that she had "noticed" Milne's voting record months ago but decided that it was not relevant after it appeared that his campaign had "moved on" from bringing up Gray's.
"After seeing the debate last night, I was very infuriated by the hypocrisy," she said. "I decided it would be a good time to essentially say, 'Hey, this is the pot calling the kettle black.'"
Milne’s campaign, however, has disputed nearly every aspect of Moore’s missive. On Friday, Donohue said it was true that Parent, himself and Metz had not voted in Vermont in the elections cited by the super PAC. But he said that is because none of the three lived in Vermont at the time: Parent was in New Jersey until 2012; Donohue was in Washington, D.C., until 2016; and Metz moved to Vermont from New York in 2015.
"This response by Molly Gray's defense team at the shadowy Alliance for a Better Vermont is more Keystone Cops than the A-Team," Donohue wrote. "It is not simply unserious, it's laughable."
The Milne campaign doubled down on Monday, sending out a press release titled, “FACT CHECK: PRO-MOLLY GRAY GROUP KNOWINGLY ISSUES FALSE INFORMATION ABOUT SCOTT MILNE'S NEARLY PERFECT VOTING RECORD.”
The press release disclosed an email from Pomfret town clerk Becky Fielder that said a review of her office’s paper records showed Milne actually had voted in four of the seven elections the PAC claimed he skipped.
The email — which Fielder sent Monday morning to Moore, Milne and Gray's campaign — said that the town clerk informed Moore last week that the electronic records she was seeking did not contain all of the voter participation data.
“I further told you that for the elections that were missing, we had paper checklists in our office that you or someone on your staff was welcome to come down and look through to find the full picture of Scott Milne’s participation,” Fielder wrote to Moore. “You declined that opportunity and said the electronic record was enough.”
Then, apparently thinking Moore was a reporter, Fielder wrote that she could not “in good conscience sit back and watch shoddy journalism and laziness shape the story, especially in this day and age of mistrust in the media.”
“I am not taking a political side in sending you this email,” Fielder wrote. “I am taking a moral stand.”
Reached Monday, Moore said the town clerk had given her no indication that paper records existed for any election after 2008. Though her allegations are now at least partially inaccurate, Moore said she stood by calling Milne an inconsistent voter. In fact, she asserted, the attempts to clear his name only show that his campaign is "clearly upset that his inconsistent record was exposed," which is why it is now "working to discredit [our] group."
“It’s clearly time to move on,” Moore said. “Both campaigns have referenced inconsistencies in their voting histories. I think that it’s time to move on.”
Milne disagreed. In Monday's press release, he called on Gray to "disassociate herself" from the super PAC, which he referred to as a "shady and dishonest organization.”
“Not only is Molly Gray lying about her own voting record, but now she has her supporters lying about mine,” he said in the release.
Milne's campaign, meanwhile, is getting more than a few tweets about voting records from a super PAC. Two hours before Thursday's debate, the Republican State Leadership Committee announced it would back Milne with nearly $210,000 in the form of television advertisements.
The D.C.-based super PAC counts among its biggest donors Altria Group, one of the world’s largest cigarette companies; the Las Vegas Sands casino corporation, which is owned by billionaire GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson; and the Judicial Crisis Network, which is currently spending millions of dollars to pressure Republican lawmakers to confirm President Donald Trump’s as-yet-unnamed Supreme Court nominee to replace late justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
On Monday, Gray's campaign manager, Samantha Sheehan, declined to comment on the latest scuffle over Milne's voting record. She did the same when asked about it on Friday, before the town clerk's clarification, saying, "We'll let others do the talking."