Sunday, May 08, 2005

Questionable vote

In the town of Appalachia, some people say they were offered alcohol or cigarettes for their votes in a local election.

APPALACHIA — At first, Christina McKinney just laughed at the suggestion that she sell her vote for a pack of cigarettes and a bag of fried pork skins.

Then McKinney started hearing stories from her neighbors in Appalachia: They too had been approached by a supporter of a town council candidate, she said, and offered beer, booze or cigarettes in exchange for their votes.

One year later, a state police investigation into the election continues.

Wise County Commonwealth's Attorney Chad Dotson said he hopes to make a decision soon on whether to seek criminal charges stemming from a hotly contested local election last May in which 18 percent of the votes were cast by absentee ballot.

"I know there's been a lot of concern in Appalachia about this," Dotson said.

The concern extends beyond this economically depressed town of 1,800, where the coal trucks that rumble down Main Street leave a layer of dust on the vacant storefront windows. In neighboring Scott County, police are also investigating complaints of election fraud in the Gate City races for mayor and town council.

While no charges have been filed in either case, the allegations have left some people wondering about the state of local politics in parts of far Southwest Virginia.

"You're talking about messing with an election," said Rick Bowman, a candidate for Appalachia Town Council who learned of the vote-buying allegations while campaigning in McKinney's low-income neighborhood.

"You're talking about the heart of democracy."

Apart from confirming the investigation, Dotson offered few details. "I can't comment on any specifics, but there have been those allegations made," he said about the reported campaign promises of six-packs and cigarettes.

It was not clear if the scope of the state police investigation includes allegations of vote-buying, but authorities confirmed it began with McKinney's claim that someone stole her mail-in ballot and cast it without her knowledge.

‘I just laughed,’ she said.

This much seems clear: Whatever happened last spring in Appalachia, Christina McKinney got stuck in the middle of it.

The 23-year-old never thought much about voting until she was approached in April by a supporter of a town council candidate. At the time, McKinney was raising one child and was six months pregnant with a second. The single mother lives in Inman Village, a
government-subsidized apartment complex.

"I think I was eating pork skins that day and he told me he would buy me pork skins and a pack of cigarettes," McKinney said. The only condition, she said, was that she vote by absentee ballot for the candidate and two others running on the same slate.

(The Roanoke Times is not identifying the supporter or the candidates because no charges have been filed.)

McKinney said she really didn't want to vote. But the man kept pressuring her, she said.

She finally agreed when he explained that she could vote by absentee ballot because she was on bed rest.

State law allows someone to mail in their ballot if they are unable to go to the polls because of a physical disability or illness. That really didn't apply to her, McKinney knows now, but she trusted the man to fill out the paperwork for her.

She never did take him up on the offer for cigarettes and more pork skins. "I just laughed," she said.

About a week after her absentee ballot application was mailed to the Wise County registrar's office, the man came by to see if she had received the ballot. McKinney said she gave him the key to her mailbox so he could check, and did the same thing a day or two later when another supporter of the same candidate came by to ask the same

Soon after that, the supporter told her that "it had been taken care of." She took that to mean that someone had filled out the absentee ballot in her name and mailed it back to the registrar's office.

A list of absentee voters provided by the Wise County registrar shows that McKinney's application to vote was received April 20. A ballot was issued and mailed to her the next day, according to the records. The ballot was mailed back to the registrar's office on April 29, supposedly filled out and signed by McKinney.

The day she suspected that someone had voted for her, McKinney told a neighbor. The neighbor called a candidate for town council, she said, who apparently notified authorities. All McKinney knows for sure is that a few days later, two investigators were knocking on her door.

The investigators had McKinney sign a sworn statement attesting that she had applied for, but never received, an absentee ballot. The statement, a copy of which is on file at the registrar's office, is dated May 4, 2004 — the day of the town council elections.
McKinney was escorted to the polling place that day by the two investigators. She was allowed to vote in person, and the absentee ballot that had earlier been received in her name was never opened or counted, Registrar Tommy Chester said.

"This action though unusual was taken through consultation with the State Board of Elections to resolve a very unique situation," Chester wrote in a letter that accompanied copies of McKinney's signed statement and a list of 132 other people who applied to vote by absentee ballot.

Votes sought in ‘the bad place’

Although her situation might have been unique, McKinney isn't laughing any more.

She said that her neighbors in Inman Village were also approached by the same man who wanted to buy their votes with beer or cigarettes. Some have admitted taking the offer.

"This is like, the ghetto," McKinney said of Inman Village. "This is like the bad place up here. People like to drink, so I guess he decided he would target on them. He felt like he could sucker them in."

Thirty-one residents of Inman Village and a second government-subsidized complex applied to vote by absentee ballot in last May's election, according to the registrar's list.

One of them was Marlow Davidson, who said last week that he was approached by the same man McKinney described.

"He was just going around knocking on people's doors," Davidson said. "He said he would buy us a pack of cigarettes" in exchange for a vote.

Davidson said he was out of smokes at the time. "That's the only reason I voted," he said. After the man helped Davidson fill out an absentee ballot application, he returned a short time later with Davidson's preferred brand, a pack of GT 100s.

Bobby Caudill, another Inman Village resident, said he was also solicited. Same man, he said. Same pitch. Except this time, Caudill said, it was a fifth of Jim Beam bourbon for a vote.

"I was thirsty," Caudill said with a shrug.

Since talking to McKinney, state police have expanded the probe. "I think that is probably at the center of the investigation," Dotson, the Wise County prosecutor, said of McKinney's situation, "and it spread out from there."

‘So much room for fraud’

By the time Rick Bowman and Gary Bush, who was also running for another term on town council, started campaigning in Inman Village, it was clear that the competition had been there already, both men said last week.

“Some people said: ‘How much are you willing to pay us for your vote?’ ”

Bowman recalled. Although concerned by what some voters told them, the two candidates did not feel they had enough information to report the rumors of vote-buying to police.

But once the two incumbents had been voted out — and the absentee ballots had been counted — Bowman and Bush said they had a pretty good idea of what had happened. But even with Bowman's and Bush's opponents receiving more absentee votes than they did, the numbers would not have affected the election's outcome.

Out of the 585 people who voted in the election, 108 cast absentee ballots, according to the registrar's office. That's an absentee voting rate of 18 percent, compared with the usual statewide rate of about 5 percent.

In Appalachia, between 40 and 60 people usually vote by absentee ballot in town elections, said John Brooks, a member of the council who was not up for re-election last May. Last year's total was about twice the normal rate. "That signals some trouble signs to me," Brooks said.

By concentrating on the absentee vote, unscrupulous candidates can do things — either coercing votes or buying them outright — they could never do with people who vote at the polls, Bowman said.

"With mail ballots there's so much room for fraud," Bowman said. "You're in essence going into the booth with the voter and shutting the curtain. You're basically voting with them."

And in small towns, just a few votes can sometimes swing an election. Bush agreed: "What could be a useful tool to get people to vote has become a sour note, because people will learn how to beat the system," he said.

"If it happens one time and nothing is done, what normally happens? It will happen again," said Bush, who spent 20 years on the council and 14 of them as mayor. "And it will happen somewhere else."

And that, he said, will undermine public confidence in politicians and the process.

Christina McKinney, for one, is done with democracy.

"That was the first time I ever voted in my entire life," she said of her experience last May.

"And it will be the last time."