[Mb-civic] Absentee Votes Worry Officials

ean at sbcglobal.net ean at sbcglobal.net
Wed Sep 15 22:08:31 PDT 2004

Absentee Votes Worry Officials as November 2 
By Michael Moss The New York Times 
Monday 13 September 2004 
As both major political parties intensify their efforts to promote 
absentee balloting as a way to lock up votes in the presidential race, 
election officials say they are struggling to cope with coercive tactics 
and fraudulent vote-gathering involving absentee ballots that have 
undermined local races across the country. 
Some of those officials say they are worried that the brashness of 
the schemes and the extent to which critical swing states have 
allowed party operatives to involve themselves in absentee voting - 
from handling ballot applications to helping voters fill out their 
ballots - could taint the general election in November. 
In the four years since the last presidential election, prosecutors 
have brought criminal cases in at least 15 states for fraud in 
absentee voting. One case resulted in the conviction of a voting-rights 
activist this year for forging absentee ballots in a Wisconsin county 
race. In another case, a Republican election worker in Ohio was 
charged with switching the votes of nursing-home residents in the 
2000 presidential race. And last year in Michigan, three city council 
members pleaded guilty in a vote-tampering case that included forged 
signatures and ballots altered by white-out. 
The increasing popularity of absentee voting is reshaping how and 
when the country votes. Since the last presidential election, a 
growing number of election officials and party operatives have been 
promoting absentee balloting as a way to make it easier for people to 
vote and alleviate the crush of Election Day. At least 26 states now 
let residents cast absentee ballots without needing the traditional 
excuse of not being able to make it to polling places. That is six more 
states than allowed the practice in 2000. 
As a result, as many as one in four Americans are expected to vote 
by absentee ballot in the presidential race, a process that begins 
today, nearly two months before Election Day, as North Carolina 
becomes the first state to distribute ballots. 
But some experts say that concerns about a repeat in problems 
with voting machines is overshadowing the more pressing issue of 
absentee ballot fraud. 
"Everybody was worried about the chads in the 2000 election," 
said Damon H. Slone, a former West Virginia election fraud 
investigator, "when in fact by loosening up the restrictions on 
absentee voting they have opened up more chances for fraud to be 
done than what legitimate mistakes were made in Florida." 
Yet many states - including battlegrounds in the presidential 
campaign - have abandoned or declined to adopt the safeguards on 
absentee voting that election officials have warned they will need to 
prevent rigged elections, an examination by The New York Times has 
Only 6 of the 19 states where polls have shown that voters are 
almost evenly divided between President Bush and Senator John 
Kerry still require witness signatures to help authenticate absentee 
ballots. Fourteen of the 19 states allow political parties to collect 
absentee voting applications, and 7 let the parties collect completed 
ballots, raising the possibility that operatives could gather and then 
alter or discard ballots from an opponent's stronghold. 
Most of the swing states even let party operatives help voters fill 
out their absentee ballots when the voters ask for help. And political 
parties are taking advantage of vague or nonexistent state rules to 
influence people who vote at home. In Arizona this month, a county 
judge ruled that a campaign consultant had improperly held on to 
more than 14,000 absentee ballot applications he collected this 
summer to help nearly a dozen Republican candidates in the 
primary. But holding on to such applications for at least a few days is 
now common practice by both major parties in states like Arizona, 
which require only that they be turned in within a "reasonable" 
period of time. This allows campaigns to bombard voters with 
mailings and house calls just as their ballots arrive. 
Some operatives boast that this absentee electioneering lets them 
avoid the century-old anti-fraud rules that force them to stay out of 
polling places. But while acknowledging the value of legitimate get-
out-the-vote campaigns, election officials say absentee voting is 
inherently more prone to fraud than voting in person since it has no 
direct oversight. 
"Loosening the absentee balloting process, while maybe well 
intentioned, has some serious consequences for both local races and 
the general election," says Todd Rokita, secretary of state in Indiana, 
where fraud investigations are under way in at least five 
The more blatant cases of criminal misconduct have prompted 
some state officials to seek new legal powers in fighting fraud, 
including making it a crime to lie about not being able to vote in 
person in those states that require an excuse. 
A Matter for the States 
The Justice Department says the Constitution mandates that 
states run elections, and it generally can intervene only on civil rights 
matters like ensuring that non-English-speakers are not excluded. 
In the mayoral race last year in East Chicago, Ind., federal officials 
declined to act on the pleas of one candidate's supporters, who 
foresaw trouble in absentee voting. Two weeks before the election, in 
the Democratic primary, the campaign of the challenger, George 
Pabey, was tipped to shenanigans, and his supporters asked the 
United States attorney there to safeguard the balloting. The 
prosecutor referred the matter to the Justice Department's civil rights 
division, which did not show up until a year later, to monitor a 
different election. 
Mr. Pabey lost the race. Last month, the state Supreme Court 
voided the election after a judge found that the "zealotry to promote 
absentee voting" resulted in residents being coerced into voting with 
offers of jobs and other assistance. 
There are now criminal investigations of the election by local, state 
and federal authorities, with five people already charged. Some voters 
who agreed to vote absentee in return for polling-place jobs say they 
had no idea this was improper. 
"That's how I thought it was, you get paid to vote," Larry Ellison of 
East Chicago, 32, said in a recent interview, adding that he needed 
the $100 he received for his vote to buy medicine for his seizures. 
In North Carolina, three university students were charged with 
felonies last year, accused of voting both absentee and at the polls 
after they responded to campus fliers that offered free concert tickets 
worth $22.50 for voting absentee. 
Signatures and Excuses 
Since 2000, when mail-in votes became crucial to President Bush's 
narrow victory in Florida, several groups that studied election 
irregularities have issued warnings about absentee voting. One 
commission, whose co-chairman was former President Jimmy Carter, 
found that most election officials had grown lax in handling absentee 
"For practical reasons, most states do not routinely check 
signatures either on applications or on returned ballots, just as most 
states do not verify signatures or require proof of identity at the 
polls," wrote John Mark Hansen, dean of the social sciences division 
at the University of Chicago, who directed research for the 
commission's 2001 report. 
Also in 2001, an international association of election officials 
called the Election Center produced a report that noted the growing 
importance of absentee voting and concluded, "Strict procedures and 
penalties to prevent undue influence and fraud must be adopted by 
jurisdictions seeking expanded absentee access or all-mail elections." 
Gary Bartlett, an association member and the director of elections 
in North Carolina, said, "It seems like whenever there is hanky-panky 
in elections, it's usually through absentee voting." 
In 2002, North Carolina stopped requiring an excuse to vote 
absentee, but at the same time it barred anyone but voters and their 
relatives from handling absentee applications. In addition, the state 
requires two witness signatures on absentee ballots, which Mr. 
Bartlett says is a powerful tool against fraud. 
In Oregon, where all voters now cast their ballots by mail, officials 
have adopted several safeguards, including the use of a scanner that 
produces an image of the voter's registration signature for instant 
comparison with the signature on the absentee envelope. But Melody 
Rose, an assistant professor of political science at Portland State 
University, who has studied the state's elections, said she was 
concerned that political operatives could still collect ballots. 
"We are a battleground state, and it is likely to be a very tight 
race," Ms. Rose said. "What is to stop some individual from saying, 
'This is a red neighborhood' or 'This is a blue neighborhood and I'm 
going to go and volunteer to take ballots and dump them in the river.' 
The Ballot Gatherers 
This year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court barred election 
officials from letting political operatives collect completed ballots, 
citing fraud concerns. But some efforts to limit the role of operatives 
in absentee voting have been derailed by political jockeying, and the 
fears, expressed mostly by Democrats, that such controls could 
diminish turnout. 
Three towns in Connecticut tested a program last summer that 
barred political parties from handling ballot requests. But while the 
effort was deemed a success, the Legislature declined to make the 
ban permanent statewide, said Jeffrey B. Garfield, executive director 
of the State Elections Enforcement Commission. 
Campaign workers "tend to target people who are elderly, infirm, 
low-income, non-English-speaking," Mr. Garfield said. "So there is a 
psychology of almost fear and intimidation." 
In other cases, new controls have caused interest groups to seek 
new ways to grab absentee votes. Two years ago, after Iowa placed 
new restrictions on who can handle ballot applications, political 
activists discovered an arcane rule that lets almost any people who 
can gather 100 signatures set up their own polling place where 
residents can vote early. 
After several churches did so last year to fight a casino initiative, 
unions in Cedar Rapids said they hoped to collect 1,000 votes for Mr. 
Kerry on Oct. 10 by setting up voting booths at a Teamsters hall 
during a rally for workers and their families. 
The local elections director, Linda Langenberg, said the law 
required only that their voting booths be set up more than 30 feet 
away from any electioneering; nonetheless, Ms. Langenberg said, she 
is concerned. "I won't let them have voting in the same building 
where they are having a rally," she said. 
Elsewhere, some experts contend that regulators have undermined 
efforts to fight voting fraud. In West Virginia, Mr. Slone said that 
three years ago he was forwarding information to the Federal Bureau 
of Investigation about absentee votes being swapped for $15 and 
flasks of whiskey when a new secretary of state replaced him with 
compliance officers who he said did not have the skill to ferret out 
"Absentee voting is one of the most abused things in the state," 
Mr. Slone said in an interview. And while it mostly surfaces in local 
elections, he said, the same culprits may be turning out votes in 
national races, too. 
The West Virginia secretary of state's office denies that it has 
diminished its antifraud effort. 
In East Chicago, many voters said their faith in the election 
process was shaken by the debacle last year in the mayor's race. 
The challenger, Mr. Pabey, won the race based on polling-place 
votes but lost to Mayor Robert A. Pastrick by 278 votes when the 
absentee ballots were counted. Within days, a civic group, Women for 
Change, sent 50 volunteers - nurses, secretaries, mill workers - 
knocking on doors of absentee voters to investigate. 
The admissions they got from dozens of voters led Judge Steven 
King of Lake County Superior Court to render a 104-page decision 
chock-full of testimony from poor residents like Shelia Pierce. Ms. 
Pierce said she had been facing eviction when she let an operative 
working for the mayor's campaign, Allan Simmons, fill out her 
absentee ballot in return for the promise of a $100 job working 
outside the polls on Election Day. She said he later threatened her to 
keep her from testifying. 
Mr. Simmons has been charged with three counts of attempted 
obstruction of justice and six counts of ballot fraud. He has denied 
the charges. Mr. Pastrick has not been charged with wrongdoing and 
has denied any involvement in fraud. 
In the same election, Elisa Delrio says a local official offered her a 
$160 job at the polls and even took her absentee ballot to the 
hospital where she was having surgery. But when she voted instead 
for Mr. Pabey, her ballot, which she handed to the official, 
disappeared and was not counted, election records showed. 
"It made me so angry," Ms. Delrio says. "Voting is sacred." 
Judge King stopped short of voiding the election, saying the 155 
votes he had thrown out did not change the outcome, but the 
Supreme Court of Indiana concluded that it was impossible to 
determine the true winner. A new election is scheduled for Oct. 26.

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