Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Absentee Votes Worry Officials as Nov. 2 Nears

NY Times

Absentee Votes Worry Officials as Nov. 2 Nears

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 found.

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 communities.

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 ballots.

"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 fraud.

"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.