By LAWRENCE MESSINA
CHARLESTON (AP) —
With early and absentee voting already under way, West Virginia and federal officials are hoping to prevent any fraud before it happens as Election Day approaches.
Authorities have reason to be wary. As recently as 2010, conspiracies have plotted to sway balloting in the state. The since-resigned sheriff and clerk of Lincoln County, along with one of its commissioners, pleaded guilty earlier this year to federal charges arising from a scheme to influence the 2010 Democratic primary with absentee ballots.
The U.S. attorneys for both of the state’s federal court districts have announced stepped-up efforts to guard against election fraud and voting rights abuses. The duties of Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, as West Virginia’s elections chief, is also to look out for attempts to corrupt the process, spokesman Jake Glance said.
“This is something that’s been very important to the Department of Justice, certainly since I’ve been here,” said U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin of the state’s southern district. “During every election cycle, we try to push out the fact that if there are allegations of voter intimidation or voter fraud, we want to hear about. We want to address them on the front end, before they affect an election.”
The West Virginia Republican Party plans to send teams of lawyers and volunteers around the state to watch for fraud. Executive Director Chad Holland said GOP concerns include the counting of ballots.
“If you’re going to steal an election, you don’t know how many votes you need to make up until you see the vote tally,” Holland said. “There have been far too many convictions for voter fraud in the state of West Virginia.
Goodwin has helped secure those recent convictions. Besides the recent absentee ballot scheme, that office has landed guilty pleas from now-former officials in Logan and Lincoln counties — all Democrats — and others involved in a conspiracy that bought votes with liquor and cash in party primaries dating back to at least 1990.
“I cannot recall, even going back before my time here, any voting tabulation fraud,” Goodwin said. “I don’t believe my office has received any such complaints.”
Tennant’s staff is “focusing on the entire process” as it fans across the state to monitor the election, Glance said.
“We’ll be here until 5 in the morning until the last counting is done,” Glance said. “We don’t leave until the last counting is done, and so we can be working 21 hours. That’s part of our focusing on all of the steps of the process.”
Glance noted that the overwhelming majority of ballots are now tallied electronically. Just two of West Virginia’s 55 counties, Braxton and Wyoming counties, rely on paper ballots. He also cited state law, which limits who can be in voting precincts on Election Day.
That law should ease another GOP concern, both in West Virginia and other states, regarding plans by international election observers to watch the U.S. vote. Texas’ Republican attorney general has threatened to arrest officials from the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, if they come within 100 feet of polling sites.
OSCE observers generally are members of parliament from organization member countries, which include the United States and 55 countries in Europe and Central Asia. The group has sent observers to poll locations across the U.S. since 2002 and stationed some in San Antonio in 2008.
Besides the West Virginia law, Glance said the two OSCE officials assigned to the state, from Great Britain and Denmark, visited only to observe such pre-election preparations as the training of poll workers. They are also assigned to Ohio.
“They’re not going to be in any of the (West Virginia) precincts on Election Day,” Glance said.
State Democratic Party Executive Director Derek Scarbro praised the prior efforts to enforce election law and crack down on fraud, and predicted a clean and fair voting process for West Virginia.
“We’re very confident in our public officials at the Secretary of State and in the judicial branch to protect the vote,” Scarbro said.
Lawrence Messina covers the statehouse for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/lmessina