GOP's Turn to Cry Fraud - In Pennsylvania Election

In state Senate contest, a Republican had won until the absentee ballots were counted. Now a federal investigation is under way.

TIS the season for political parties to cry ``Fraud.''

First it was the Democrats. They claimed Republicans had stolen the New Jersey governor's race in November by shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to suppress the minority vote. Unable to prove anything illegal took place, Democrats dropped the charge.

Now it's the Republicans' turn. They accuse Democrats of swiping a crucial Pennsylvania election last month for control of the state Senate. Republican national chairman Haley Barbour says Democrats engaged in ``unsavory and illegal tactics'' in the Philadelphia precincts.

The furor over the Pennsylvania and New Jersey elections is giving Americans an unusual glimpse at some of the hidden shenanigans that can mark campaigns in the United States.

The Pennsylvania election pitted Democrat William Stinson against Republican Bruce Marks. Despite accusations of fraud from the GOP, Mr. Stinson took his seat in the Senate and told reporters he won the election ``fair and square.'' Now he concedes ``something went on,'' but he denies his campaign was responsible for anything illegal.

The implications of the Stinson-Marks race reach beyond Philadelphia. If Republican Marks had won, majority control of the Pennsylvania Senate would have switched to the GOP. Proof of widespread fraud by Democratic campaign workers would also add to the party's deepening gloom after a series of election losses in several states since President Clinton took office.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, which has spent weeks interviewing voters in Stinson's hotly contested 2nd Pennsylvania Senate district, reported Wednesday that it has now turned up 220 irregularities in absentee ballots, including 24 instances where documents were forged.

Prodded by the newspaper's investigations, the United States Department of Justice now has begun investigating, along with the Pennsylvania attorney general's office. If the Inquirer's reports are correct, Democratic fraud in the 2nd district was both widespread and blatant. When the votes were initially counted after last month's special election, it first appeared that Republican Marks had won, although narrowly. Out of nearly 40,000 votes, he led by only 562. But that was before election officials counted the absentee ballots.

Among the absentees, Democrat Stinson got a surprising 1,391 votes to just 366 for Marks - and suddenly Stinson had won the election by a margin of 463.

It now appears, however, that hundreds of voters in black and Latino areas of the 2nd district were cajoled, or misled, into casting absentee ballots. Many ballots were improperly cast. Some were forged. Some voters unfamilar with absentee balloting were coached to vote Democratic.

Zoraida Rodriguez, who lives in the district, told a Republican-sponsored press conference in Washington this week how it worked. Ms. Rodriguez said that one week before election day, a man came to her house with an absentee ballot and asked her to put a check in a box and sign her name. She did, and he left.

The next day, a woman appeared at her door with another absentee ballot and asked that her husband vote. When Rodriguez explained that her husband was in prison, the woman directed her to cast the vote for him.

``Anybody can vote for anybody [else],'' the woman allegedly explained.

Later, uncertain whether she had voted properly, Rodriguez went to the regular neighborhood polling place on election day. ``I voted twice,'' she admitted. ``I wanted to vote legal, like you're supposed to do. I didn't trust the [absentee ballot].''

Another voter, Diana Irizarry, a recent high school graduate, said a campaign worker came to her door and explained ``there was a new law out, and he was taking absentee ballots.... It was a new system, and they were trying out absentee ballots, and - was I willing to sign?''

Ms. Irizarry says the ballot she was shown had no names, just a choice between a straight Democratic ticket and a straight Republican ticket. Irizarry said she wanted to vote for Marks, and the worker ``told me to put Democrat, and I signed,'' she says. Irizarry now feels she was ``misled,'' since Marks is a Republican.

Rick Bloomingdale, executive director of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, concedes: ``There were probably mistakes made by [campaign] workers not understanding the rules of absentee ballots.''

Mr. Bloomingdale continues: ``We are supposed to abide by the law. I don't think anybody did it intentionally. It was all intended to increase voter participation. No one was trying to do anything malicious or mean, or to trick anybody. There were just people who didn't understand the process.''

Even if the Inquirer report is correct, and there were 220 questionable ballots, that ``does not change the outcome of the election at all,'' Bloomingdale adds. He notes that the election results have been challenged in ``six or seven courts'' and ``they have all thrown this thing out.''

However, US Rep. Curt Weldon (R) of Pennsylvania, whose district includes the Philadelphia suburbs, says this ``appears to be the largest case of targeted voter fraud in recent history in this country.''

The Inquirer tried to determine the extent of vote fraud by making an in-depth probe of the 37th Ward, where 58 absentee ballots had been cast.

Of those 58 ballots, the Inquirer found: five instances of forged voters' signatures; 39 ballots cast by people who were told to vote absentee, even though they were not legally qualified to do so; and nine ballots which were cast properly.

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