Fraud is alleged in election for mayor

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Greensboro – Vanessa Hill is locked into a runoff campaign Sept. 14 with J.B. Washington, and on Monday handed over what she says are specific examples of voting fraud to The Times.

Hill, despite winning a majority of the poll vote in last Tuesday’s mayoral election, trails Washington by 40 votes. Washington garnered 643 total votes to Hill’s 603. Of the 254 absentee ballots counted, Washington took 216 of them and Hill received 37.

Hill challenged 165 votes in the race – both absentee ballots and votes cast at the poll.

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“We’re trying to stop an age-old practice here,” Hill said Monday in her downtown Greensboro office.

The challenged votes, Hill said, are based on two premises: first, a voter can’t vote twice, and secondly, voters who don’t live inside the city limits can’t vote in a city race.

While the challenges may seem simple, they are difficult – and expensive – to prove.

Hill contends a group called Campaign 2000 and Beyond routinely organizes absentee ballot campaigns, and routinely registers people to vote using false addresses.

“One voter was sent two absentee ballots, which both showed up on the voters list [the log of people casting ballots],” she said.

Other voters, said Pamela Chism, director of Friends of Hale County, were registered under addresses that either do not exist or are false addresses.

Chism’s organization regularly gets involved in promoting Hale County projects that deal with quality of life issues.

“I just had no idea about how bad some of the voting issues were,” she said. “The absentee votes is where they get you,” she said.

Hill said that about 90 percent of white voters cast ballots – mostly in her favor – in the race, an issue she and Chism contend is at the heart of the controversy.

“It’s almost the reverse of what used to happen when whites suppressed the black vote,” Chism said. “It’s almost a revenge kind of thing,” adding that intimidation of the voters – both black and white – by members of the Campaign 2000 and Beyond group is the major tool used by some members to stay in office.

“Everybody is afraid to speak out because the people that are involved are your higher ups,” Hill said.

Questionable Practices

Greensboro operates only a single polling place at the National Guard Armory, and Hill poll watcher Ann Langford said she saw several problems during the day.

“The problem was not when I challenged the votes … [City Clerk Lorrie Cook] adamantly explained to the workers ‘how things were’ – I’ve been an inspector, a worker and a watcher so I’m quite familiar with the process.”

Among irregularities Langford saw were absentee names being read from the outside envelope, rather than from the affidavit on the ballot itself, a process Cook changed after Langford raised an objection.

“Some challenges can be made only after seeing the information on the ballot affidavit,” Langford said.

Another obstacle to challenging ballots was that Langford said Cook instructed absentee manager Melanie Henderson to read the names from the ballots rapidly. Once read and placed down on the table, Cook did not allow a challenge to be lodged.

“I was told ‘it’s too late’ and ‘we can’t go back’ which isn’t true either,” Langford said. “It was quite an uncomfortable situation … it appeared that [the process was] to make it extremely difficult to challenge ballots,” she said.

Langford said Cook also enforced a “rule” that once absentee ballots began the validation process, no one was allowed to leave the room. That process began about 3 p.m. and lasted until after 9 p.m., she said.

“If you left, you weren’t permitted back in the room,” she said. “There’s no law that you can’t go back in.”

“There was quite a bit of animosity,” said Langford, who at one point in the absentee counting said she was told by Cook she was interfering with the process and that she should leave.

“It surprised a lot of people. She asked me if I wanted to leave and I told her ‘no I did not’,” she said.

Langford wasn’t the only one to notice irregularities. Chism said some poll watchers from Washington’s campaign helped as many as four voters at a time, and Adelaide Hearnes said she witnessed a poll worker tear up ballots on two instances when she challenged voters who were voting but did not live within the city limits.

“She said there wasn’t any use in doing anything else with them if [the voters] didn’t live in the city,” Hearnes said.

Hill’s campaign has stipulated 22 specific complaints that include:

Individuals voting who live outside the city;

Improperly witnessed absentee ballots – some being witnessed by “George Jones” and other names of country music personalities, a jab at her Nashville ties, Hill said;

Improper voter identification, such as temporary drivers licenses without seal on the wrong color paper;

Voters allowed to vote by post office box rather than street address;

Circuit Clerk Gaynell Tinker taking photographs inside the polling place;

Voters casting more than one ballot;

Loitering around the polling place, and specifically people being allowed to walk in and out of the polling place more than once;

No oath being administered to challenged voters;

Challenged votes being placed in the ballot box instead of in their own designated box;

No racial diversity among poll clerks in Districts 3 and 4;

Individuals being allowed to vote although they had not registered to vote at least 10 days prior to the election;

All challenged votes were counted as legal.

The Remedies

Hill and Chism both say they’ve discussed the issues with District Attorney Ed Greene, representatives of Attorney General Troy King, the U.S. Justice Department, the FBI and the Alabama League of Municipalities.

“The district attorney told us that it would take as long as a year to get something done,” Chism said. Chism talked with Greene over the weekend.

Hill didn’t like the response from Greene, or from the attorney general’s office either, but the onus to contest an election falls to a candidate and is a matter for the circuit court.

Greene said his responsibilities, much like the attorney general’s, was to investigate potential criminal voting fraud claims.

“We will prosecute if there’s something criminal found but we can’t assist a candidate in a contest although many times what comes out of a contest is very interesting to a criminal investigation,” Greene said.

A contest to the election isn’t in the offing right now, according to Hill.

“The best course of action is for me to get out and campaign and win this run off,” she said, noting that the cost of mounting an election contest was prohibitive. Candidates from Tuesday’s election had until Monday to file a contest in circuit court.

Hill said, however, that it was time someone “stood up to what’s been going on” in Hale County elections.

“As mayor, I’ll work to end the absentee ballot fraud that’s been going on here for a long time,” she said.

“If we have these same problems in the run off election, we’ll [contest the election.] We want people to know they won’t be allowed to vote if they try to do so fraudulently,” she said.

Neither Cook nor mayoral candidate J.B. Washington were available for comment for this story.