Sunday, February 20, 2005

Testimony appears to show violations of election law

Candidates hung around the doors, and at least one voter who wasn't sure if she was eligible was allowed to vote by an improper procedure.

If the late election results from Gate City include indictments, illegal absentee voting could be one of the charges.

But questions have also come up about votes cast at the polls.

One question during the May 4 election for town council and mayor was whether some voters were town residents. One voter wasn't exactly sure herself. Neither were the poll workers.

So they asked Charles Dougherty, the incumbent mayor running for re-election, who just happened to be standing right there.

"He said: 'The water tower is in the city limits' and she said: 'Well, I'm just out from the water tower.' So, he said: 'Go ahead and let her vote.'" Which is what the election workers did.

That account was provided by Phyllis Spivey, a poll worker who gave a deposition last year in a lawsuit filed by Dougherty's challenger. Allowing such votes based solely on the opinion of a candidate could have influenced an election that was decided by just two votes, the suit claimed.

A three-judge panel voided the election in September.

Spivey's testimony appears to show several violations of election law. When poll workers are uncertain about a voter's status, the law requires them to have the person fill out a form affirming their eligibility. The voter then casts a conditional vote to be reviewed later by the Electoral Board. That didn't happen, Spivey said.

Another law requires candidates to remain at least 40 feet away from the polling place, except to cast their own votes. The law also forbids candidates from soliciting votes in the restricted area.

According to Spivey, Dougherty was in and out of the polling place at least 10 times on Election Day. But Dougherty denied soliciting votes, as the lawsuit alleged.

Dougherty said he only entered the building - a former bank that serves as both town hall and polling place - to tend to official business, such as dealing with a water main leak. "They would holler at me to come inside" when the phone rang, he said.

He never was far away, it seemed. Despite the 40-foot restriction, the mayor and other candidates all stood just outside the door to greet voters and hand out campaign literature.

"We've always done it that way," Dougherty said.

Thomas Keller, a former member of the Electoral Board, testified last year that he saw the violations, but did not order the candidates back because it would have forced them to stand in the street. Keller said he simply told them: "Act like adults and keep the entrance open."

Once complaints began to surface - including one from a voter who didn't appreciate having to push her way through politicians - election officials in Richmond asked the Scott County Electoral Board to investigate. In a May 27 letter, Board of Elections secretary Jean Jensen wrote that with national attention focused on elections, "we cannot afford to have the citizens of Scott County question the integrity of the electoral process."

An investigation was never started. The entire board has since resigned. All three members either declined to comment or could not be reached.

In his deposition, Keller said he saw no need for the board to investigate something that was already in litigation. But one board member did attempt to call a meeting on the matter, he said. That member was Sherry Lee Wilson, the last to quit.

Wilson wrote in an October resignation letter that she could not ethically continue to hold her position. She also expressed fears that the same problems that happened in the town election would repeat themselves Nov. 7.

"I will not knowingly participate in the supervision of an election where those charged with conducting the election refuse to comply with Virginia law," Wilson wrote.