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Calif. probe spotlights absentee ballot abuse

From Msnbc.com's Tom Curry
Do absentee ballots increase the potential for vote fraud and corruption?

A case that might help shed light on that question is now unfolding in California’s Bell city, a low-income Latino municipality of 37,000 where fewer than 400 people voted in a 2005 election that opened the way for city officials to arrange huge increases in their own compensation.

Former city manager Robert Rizzo was paid more than $1.5 million a year in salary and benefits.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown, who is the Democratic candidate for governor, said Monday he is broadening his investigation of Bell officials to include potential absentee ballot abuse.

Brown said his office “has received several reports from residents of Bell indicating that city officials encouraged them to fill out absentee ballots and then collected the ballots. We have seen similar reports in the Los Angeles Times. If these allegations are true, this could be a serious violation of state law."

His statement said “improper procedures may have been followed by public officials in the very election that allowed the city to give out these outrageous salaries.” Brown referred to the 2005 election in which Bell converted to a charter city, which allowed city officials more leeway to increase their salaries.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Steven Cooley, a Republican who is running for the job Brown now has, is also investigating allegations of voter fraud and conflicts of interest in Bell.

The city has 9,395 registered voters, about 25 percent of its total population. In contrast, statewide about 46 percent of California’s residents are registered voters.

According to the Census, 88 percent of Bell’s residents speak a language other than English at home and 91 percent of residents are of Latino origin.

The case resembles one in 2003 in East Chicago, Indiana, where widespread fraud using absentee ballots led to several convictions. The East Chicago case was later cited by Justice John Paul Stevens in upholding Indiana’s voter identification law.

Schemes such as the one in East Chicago “demonstrate that not only is the risk of voter fraud real but that it could affect the outcome of a close election,” Stevens wrote in his opinion for the majority.

The Bell case allegedly involves city officials visiting voters’ homes to collect ballots.

California allows for permanent absentee voting in which people who could physically show up a polling place instead vote by mail. In California’s June primary, 58 percent of all ballots were cast by mail.

Could the Bell controversy have any spillover effect on elections in California this year?

Longtime Los Angeles elections expert Allen Hoffenblum said, “I don’t think so, other than making the voters even more cynical than they are now – if that’s possible.”

“The type of fraud being alleged in Bell is extraordinarily rare, and is best combated by the type of vigilance shown by those who have stood up to be counted,” said Matt Dunlap, Maine’s Secretary of State who is president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, the group representing the officials who administer elections in most states.

He said, “The balance between security and access is a delicate one; obviously, if you're concerned about the chance of any fraud at all regarding absentee ballots, then the solution might be to do away with them. But then, what about those folks who can't get to the polls? You wind up disenfranchising the many because of the possible activities of the few.”

Those who abuse absentee ballots “should be aggressively prosecuted so that the public doesn't lose faith in the process,” he said, noting that that’s what appears to be happening in California.