Thursday, May 04, 2006

Fraud case puts skids on absentees

The vote-buying case in Appalachia and Gate City encouraged people to vote in person.

Large numbers of absentee voters were largely absent Tuesday in Appalachia and Gate City, where two years ago they were the targets of alleged election fraud.

In Appalachia, where town council candidates were charged with buying absentee votes with beer, cigarettes and even pork rinds in the 2004 election, only five absentee ballots were cast in Tuesday's municipal races -- compared to 108 two years ago.

And in Gate City, where the former mayor is accused of not just courting absentee voters too aggressively but in some cases filling out their ballots and voting for himself in the process, 20 people voted in absentia -- compared to 158 two years ago.

"It is my opinion that the drastic reduction in the number of absentee votes paints a vivid picture of just how bad the absentee voting system was being abused to ensure control of the outcome of elections," said Mark Jenkins, who was re-elected mayor of Gate City on Tuesday.

Two years ago, Jenkins blew the whistle on election fraud in far Southwest Virginia.

After losing the mayor's race by two votes to incumbent Charles Dougherty, he successfully challenged the results in court and was appointed interim mayor.

Although his court case eventually turned on mistakes made by poll workers on Election Day, Jenkins was outspoken about what he said was the long-standing practice of some candidates who take advantage of elderly and unsophisticated voters.

By approaching those people in their homes, Jenkins said, unscrupulous politicians can coerce the voters into citing false reasons for casting absentee ballots -- votes that invariably go to the candidate in question.

In the 2004 election for mayor of Gate City, about 20 percent of the votes cast were by absentee ballot, and 87 percent of those went to Dougherty. The statewide absentee voting rate that year was 7 percent.

Dougherty was charged last year with 37 felony counts of election fraud. He was acquitted of two charges in February. Special Prosecutor Joel Branscom said this week that the remaining charges have yet to be set for trial.

Virginia is one of 22 states that require an excuse for absentee voting. Voters who can't make it to the polls must fill out an application and sign a sworn statement citing one of the permitted reasons, which include being out of town for business or vacation, away for college or military service, or homebound due to illness or disability.

A growing number of states allow early voting, and Virginia's legislature has been asked to loosen the law to encourage more civic involvement.

But abuses of the absentee voting process have made lawmakers wary. Perhaps the most egregious allegations of abuse came earlier this year in Appalachia.

Fourteen people, including two candidates for town council and their supporters, were charged with offering beer and cigarettes to voters in low-income neighborhoods in exchange for their votes. After enlisting absentee voters, the defendants stole the ballots from the intended voters' mail boxes and used them to vote for themselves, according to an indictment that listed about 1,000 offenses.

Tom Chester, the voter registrar for Wise County, said the scandal clearly influenced the low number of absentee votes in Appalachia.

Even before the polls closed Tuesday, Chester was predicting the low overall turnout: just 290 citizens voted, compared to 585 in the last election. The town has 1,111 registered voters.

"It sort of left a bad feeling with the town itself," Chester said of the indictment.

While some say the system was clearly abused, the other side of the argument is that voters with legitimate reasons for voting absentee may have been left out of the process this year, Chester said.

No one running for Appalachia Town Council this year was involved in the election two years ago.

In Gate City, where turnout was also down from two years ago, Jenkins was not the only name that might have been familiar to voters mindful of the 2004 controversy. Dougherty's son, Steve, lost his bid for a seat on town council.

Although this year's elections in Appalachia and Gate City appear to be fraud-free, democracy in another small town in far Southwest Virginia is attracting legal scrutiny.

Last month, several residents of Glade Spring, a town of about 1,500 in Washington County, complained to authorities after a classified advertisement offered free garden plowing in exchange for votes.

Some have said it was just a prank pulled on James Crabtree, who lost Tuesday in a five-way race for mayor.

Washington County Sheriff Fred Newman said that the case was recently turned over to state police, who will conduct an investigation and turn the results over to the county prosecutor.