Read previous stories about the Gate City election investigation." />
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Sunday, May 08, 2005

Kilgore brings up absentee voting

The candidate says he sees potential participation; critics see a downside. Read previous stories about the Gate City election investigation.

To encourage voter participation in Virginia, gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore wants more absentee voting.

But according to the mayor of Kilgore's hometown, that could encourage the kind of irregularities that plagued last May's local elections in Gate City.

"I think the extension of an already abused system invites the opportunity for only more abuse," said Mark Jenkins, who raised questions about a town election in which 20 percent of the vote was cast by absentee ballot.

State police are investigating Jenkins’ allegations of absentee voting abuses.

The probe had been proceeding quietly until late last month, when Jenkins weighed in on Kilgore's recent campaign proposal to allow absentee voting for any reason.

Under current state law, absentee voters must sign a sworn statement attesting that they cannot make it to the polls on Election Day for one of several reasons: being out of town for business, vacation, college or military duty; working at least 11 hours; or having a disability or illness.

Kilgore's campaign defended his plan as a way to increase voting by making the process easier.

After losing the Gate City mayor's race by just two votes last May, Jenkins filed a legal challenge. He claimed that unqualified voters tainted the election, and that some candidates aggressively recruited absentee voters and encouraged people to lie about their reasons for not being able to vote in person.

A three-judge panel invalidated the elections and appointed a new town council that in turn named Jenkins mayor.

According to Jenkins, part of the blame for last year's botched election lies with the Scott County voter registrar's office, which is run by Kilgore's mother, Willie Mae Kilgore.

Although the mayor agreed with Jerry Kilgore that the state should encourage more voter participation, he questioned both the candidate's plan to accomplish that goal and the motives behind his proposal.

"I think the remarks to promote a more lax absentee voting system are a good way of blowing smoke in an attempt to appear that he sees nothing wrong" with last year's elections in Gate City, Jenkins wrote in an e-mail to The Roanoke Times.

Last July, when Kilgore was still attorney general, he said in an interview with the Kingsport (Tenn.) Times-News that while "mistakes were made" during the Gate City election, there did not appear to be any deliberate wrongdoing.

Jenkins interpreted that as a statement from Virginia's top law enforcement official that there was no need for a criminal investigation in a case that could involve his mother.

"Anything that Jerry said after that comment could not surprise me," Jenkins said.

Kilgore resigned as attorney general in February to seek the Republican nomination to run for governor. Jenkins is also a Republican.

Allowing absentee voting for any reason "seems like a common-sense idea to us," Kilgore campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said.

With many people unable or unwilling to vote, and with those who do sometimes waiting in long lines, Kilgore suggested removing the requirements for absentee voting as part of his Open and Ethical Government plan announced April 18.

"The only thing his proposal has to do with is opening the process up to more people. We're not going to get into speculation by others," Murtaugh said in response to the argument that the plan could have unintended consequences.

Asked about Jenkins' suggestion that Kilgore's comments to the Times-News were inappropriate, Murtaugh said: "Partisans can say anything they want, I suppose.

"Our concern is to make sure more people get to participate in the process, and that voting is easier for those who might encounter problems on Election Day."

Scandals date to ’60s

Virginia is one of 26 states that require an excuse for voting absentee, according to Electionline.org, a nonpartisan group that serves as a national clearinghouse for election data. The rest allow absentee voting for any reason.

In recent years, the trend has been for states to move toward allowing early voting or absentee voting with no excuse required, said Elizabeth Schneider, a researcher for Electionline.org.

But efforts to do that in Virginia have not fared well. Four bills that would have allowed absentee votes for any reason did not make it out of committee during the recent General Assembly session.

Concerns about voting fraud are often cited by opponents to such bills.

"It is a problem," said Barbara Burt, who heads the election reform team for Common Cause, a political watchdog group. "It's a big question that we need to wrestle with."

Far Southwest Virginia has a history of absentee voting scandals dating to the 1960s.

From the time he entered local politics, Jenkins said, he has heard stories about unscrupulous candidates canvassing nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and low-income neighborhoods in search of voters whose support can easily be manipulated.

Two Gate City residents were coached to lie about their reasons for being out of town on Election Day and then were told how to vote by the candidate who accompanied them into the registrar's office, according to their depositions taken in Scott County Circuit Court as part of Jenkins' challenge.

After hearing about candidates in Virginia Beach approaching nursing home residents who were neither physically nor mentally able to vote, Del. Harry “Bob” Purkey, R-Virginia Beach, introduced a bill this year that would have made it illegal for anyone to solicit absentee votes from more than two residents of a nursing home, hospital or assisted-living facility. The bill was tabled by the House Privileges and Elections Committee.

Others have joined Kilgore in arguing that loosening the law on absentee ballots would encourage greater voter participation.

"We feel that fraud has been used as a kind of stumbling block" for change, said Lulu Meese, first vice president of the state chapter of the League of Women Voters. "We don't think it's the problem that maybe people would have you believe it is, because they are focusing on a few problems rather than looking at the whole picture."

Tim Kaine, Kilgore's Democratic opponent, supports the idea of allowing absentee voting for any reason, but with one condition: that there be some sort of control to guard against abuse.

Situations like the one in Gate City "raise even more concerns" about the need to protect against fraud, Kaine spokeswoman Delacey Skinner said.

Skinner did not give any examples of the protections Kaine would prefer. But Kilgore offered one in his proposal.

If elected governor, Kilgore would require the State Board of Elections to file an annual report detailing any issues or problems arising from the November or May elections, according to his nine-point government ethics package, which also calls for more specific information on public officials' financial statements and audits of state campaign committees.

60 left to interview

Meanwhile, the state police investigation into the Gate City elections is continuing.

In voiding the election, the three-judge panel determined in September that at least 10 unqualified people were allowed to vote in person, and that their votes had a probable outcome on the razor-thin margin.

According to depositions taken in the case, poll workers did not follow the law when questions arose about whether some voters were town residents.

Testimony also suggested that some candidates broke a law requiring them to stay at least 40 feet from the polling place. Jenkins' opponent, incumbent Mayor Charles Dougherty, was in the building a number of times and even told poll workers that one woman, who was uncertain whether she lived in Gate City, was a resident and should be allowed to vote, according to witnesses.

The alleged violations at the polls would be misdemeanors, which have a one-year statute of limitations that expired last week. State police are focusing on possible violations of the absentee voting laws, felonies that are not subject to the time limit.

The unusually large number of absentee votes is what first prompted suspicion from Jenkins and others.

Gate City's 20 percent absentee voting rate last May compares with a statewide rate of between 3 percent and 6 percent in recent November elections, according to figures compiled by the State Board of Elections. Absentee voting in the May 2000 elections was slightly higher, at 7 percent. Statewide numbers for more recent May elections were not available.

In the Gate City mayor's race, Jenkins received 20 absentee votes. Dougherty had 138.

Two state police investigators hope to interview all 158 people who voted by absentee ballot, according to Botetourt County Commonwealth's Attorney Joel Branscom, the special prosecutor in the case.

(Scott County Commonwealth's Attorney Marcus McClung said he asked for a special prosecutor in part because Dougherty works for the county sheriff's office, with which his office has a close working relationship.)

Police have about 60 people left to interview, Branscom said last week.

"They're making a lot of progress, but I think it's a very time-consuming process," he said.

Branscom said a decision on whether to seek criminal charges will likely come sometime this summer.

To encourage voter participation in Virginia, gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore wants more absentee voting.

But according to the mayor of Kilgore's hometown, that could encourage the kind of irregularities that plagued last May's local elections in Gate City.

"I think the extension of an already abused system invites the opportunity for only more abuse," said Mark Jenkins, who raised questions about a town election in which 20 percent of the vote was cast by absentee ballot.

State police are investigating Jenkins’ allegations of absentee voting abuses.

The probe had been proceeding quietly until late last month, when Jenkins weighed in on Kilgore's recent campaign proposal to allow absentee voting for any reason.

Under current state law, absentee voters must sign a sworn statement attesting that they cannot make it to the polls on Election Day for one of several reasons: being out of town for business, vacation, college or military duty; working at least 11 hours; or having a disability or illness.

Kilgore's campaign defended his plan as a way to increase voting by making the process easier.

After losing the Gate City mayor's race by just two votes last May, Jenkins filed a legal challenge. He claimed that unqualified voters tainted the election, and that some candidates aggressively recruited absentee voters and encouraged people to lie about their reasons for not being able to vote in person.

A three-judge panel invalidated the elections and appointed a new town council that in turn named Jenkins mayor.

According to Jenkins, part of the blame for last year's botched election lies with the Scott County voter registrar's office, which is run by Kilgore's mother, Willie Mae Kilgore.

Although the mayor agreed with Jerry Kilgore that the state should encourage more voter participation, he questioned both the candidate's plan to accomplish that goal and the motives behind his proposal.

"I think the remarks to promote a more lax absentee voting system are a good way of blowing smoke in an attempt to appear that he sees nothing wrong" with last year's elections in Gate City, Jenkins wrote in an e-mail to The Roanoke Times.

Last July, when Kilgore was still attorney general, he said in an interview with the Kingsport (Tenn.) Times-News that while "mistakes were made" during the Gate City election, there did not appear to be any deliberate wrongdoing.

Jenkins interpreted that as a statement from Virginia's top law enforcement official that there was no need for a criminal investigation in a case that could involve his mother.

"Anything that Jerry said after that comment could not surprise me," Jenkins said.

Kilgore resigned as attorney general in February to seek the Republican nomination to run for governor. Jenkins is also a Republican.

Allowing absentee voting for any reason "seems like a common-sense idea to us," Kilgore campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said.

With many people unable or unwilling to vote, and with those who do sometimes waiting in long lines, Kilgore suggested removing the requirements for absentee voting as part of his Open and Ethical Government plan announced April 18.

"The only thing his proposal has to do with is opening the process up to more people. We're not going to get into speculation by others," Murtaugh said in response to the argument that the plan could have unintended consequences.

Asked about Jenkins' suggestion that Kilgore's comments to the Times-News were inappropriate, Murtaugh said: "Partisans can say anything they want, I suppose.

"Our concern is to make sure more people get to participate in the process, and that voting is easier for those who might encounter problems on Election Day."

Scandals date to ’60s

Virginia is one of 26 states that require an excuse for voting absentee, according to Electionline.org, a nonpartisan group that serves as a national clearinghouse for election data. The rest allow absentee voting for any reason.

In recent years, the trend has been for states to move toward allowing early voting or absentee voting with no excuse required, said Elizabeth Schneider, a researcher for Electionline.org.

But efforts to do that in Virginia have not fared well. Four bills that would have allowed absentee votes for any reason did not make it out of committee during the recent General Assembly session.

Concerns about voting fraud are often cited by opponents to such bills.

"It is a problem," said Barbara Burt, who heads the election reform team for Common Cause, a political watchdog group. "It's a big question that we need to wrestle with."

Far Southwest Virginia has a history of absentee voting scandals dating to the 1960s.

From the time he entered local politics, Jenkins said, he has heard stories about unscrupulous candidates canvassing nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and low-income neighborhoods in search of voters whose support can easily be manipulated.

Two Gate City residents were coached to lie about their reasons for being out of town on Election Day and then were told how to vote by the candidate who accompanied them into the registrar's office, according to their depositions taken in Scott County Circuit Court as part of Jenkins' challenge.

After hearing about candidates in Virginia Beach approaching nursing home residents who were neither physically nor mentally able to vote, Del. Harry “Bob” Purkey, R-Virginia Beach, introduced a bill this year that would have made it illegal for anyone to solicit absentee votes from more than two residents of a nursing home, hospital or assisted-living facility. The bill was tabled by the House Privileges and Elections Committee.

Others have joined Kilgore in arguing that loosening the law on absentee ballots would encourage greater voter participation.

"We feel that fraud has been used as a kind of stumbling block" for change, said Lulu Meese, first vice president of the state chapter of the League of Women Voters. "We don't think it's the problem that maybe people would have you believe it is, because they are focusing on a few problems rather than looking at the whole picture."

Tim Kaine, Kilgore's Democratic opponent, supports the idea of allowing absentee voting for any reason, but with one condition: that there be some sort of control to guard against abuse.

Situations like the one in Gate City "raise even more concerns" about the need to protect against fraud, Kaine spokeswoman Delacey Skinner said.

Skinner did not give any examples of the protections Kaine would prefer. But Kilgore offered one in his proposal.

If elected governor, Kilgore would require the State Board of Elections to file an annual report detailing any issues or problems arising from the November or May elections, according to his nine-point government ethics package, which also calls for more specific information on public officials' financial statements and audits of state campaign committees.

60 left to interview

Meanwhile, the state police investigation into the Gate City elections is continuing.

In voiding the election, the three-judge panel determined in September that at least 10 unqualified people were allowed to vote in person, and that their votes had a probable outcome on the razor-thin margin.

According to depositions taken in the case, poll workers did not follow the law when questions arose about whether some voters were town residents.

Testimony also suggested that some candidates broke a law requiring them to stay at least 40 feet from the polling place. Jenkins' opponent, incumbent Mayor Charles Dougherty, was in the building a number of times and even told poll workers that one woman, who was uncertain whether she lived in Gate City, was a resident and should be allowed to vote, according to witnesses.

The alleged violations at the polls would be misdemeanors, which have a one-year statute of limitations that expired last week. State police are focusing on possible violations of the absentee voting laws, felonies that are not subject to the time limit.

The unusually large number of absentee votes is what first prompted suspicion from Jenkins and others.

Gate City's 20 percent absentee voting rate last May compares with a statewide rate of between 3 percent and 6 percent in recent November elections, according to figures compiled by the State Board of Elections. Absentee voting in the May 2000 elections was slightly higher, at 7 percent. Statewide numbers for more recent May elections were not available.

In the Gate City mayor's race, Jenkins received 20 absentee votes. Dougherty had 138.

Two state police investigators hope to interview all 158 people who voted by absentee ballot, according to Botetourt County Commonwealth's Attorney Joel Branscom, the special prosecutor in the case.

(Scott County Commonwealth's Attorney Marcus McClung said he asked for a special prosecutor in part because Dougherty works for the county sheriff's office, with which his office has a close working relationship.)

Police have about 60 people left to interview, Branscom said last week.

"They're making a lot of progress, but I think it's a very time-consuming process," he said.

Branscom said a decision on whether to seek criminal charges will likely come sometime this summer.

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