Monday, October 28, 2002

Brown: Kentucky's elections clean of fraud - mostly

By Mark R. Chellgren
The Associated Press

FRANKFORT - The vote fraud and occasional gunplay notwithstanding, Secretary of State John Y. Brown III says Kentucky's elections are conducted pretty well.

With apologies to Florida, Mr. Brown says that at least Kentucky can add vote totals within a day or two of polls closing, instead of weeks or months.

"The problem of vote buying and selling continues to taint the rest of the areas, where Kentucky is really kind of a model for the rest of the nation," Mr. Brown said last week.

Kentucky was one of the first states to institute statewide registration, cutting down on the frequency of voters registering in more than one location and making it easier to purge the rolls when a voter dies or leaves the state.

It has also been in the forefront of installing modern voting machines.

All but six counties have electronic machines that keep mistakes to a minimum and make counting easy.

The other counties have a combination of electronic or lever-style machines.

The clouds that will hover over the outcome of the Nov. 5 balloting will be caused by individual wrongdoing, not because of some flaw in the system, Mr. Brown said.

Pulaski County Sheriff Sam Catron was assassinated as he campaigned. Shots were fired at a candidate for Clay County clerk.

There will be just over 2.649 million voters eligible to cast ballots, about 100,000 more than the 2000 rolls.

Democrats account for 59.3 percent of the total, a proportion that has been slowly but steadily declining.

Republicans make up 34.3 percent of the electorate with nearly 6 percent of voters choosing not to align themselves with either major party.

Mr. Brown compares the fight against vote fraud to the "war on drugs.''

Where to fight: The candidates and organizers who buy the votes or the electorate willing to sell for a half-pint of whiskey, $50,or, in the latest currency, OxyContin or meth.

Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins derisively calls them the "economic development incentives" to vote.

And they are ingrained in some areas.

Mr. Brown said clean-election initiatives are almost resented, viewed as intrusions on time-honored traditions.

"There's no will at the local level to a) prosecute, and b) witnesses to come forward. You can't even find a jury to convict," Mr. Brown said.

Federal authorities have begun dropping subpoenas around Clay County, where nearly 5.5 percent of the entire electorate voted by absentee ballot in the May primary, compared with a statewide average of 1.1 percent.

Unlike in May, the absentee turnout this fall is down substantially from nearly 1,000 to just over 50 as of last week.

"They know they're being watched," Mr. Brown said.

Yet there are still some unusual things taking place.

As of last week, there had been requests for 369 absentee ballots in Martin County, for example.

By contrast, McCracken County, with more than four times the number of registered voters, had requests for 258 absentee ballots.

"That's usually an indication, a red flag, that there's vote fraud going on," Mr. Brown said.

To stop it, Mr. Brown and Mr. Blevins said a dramatic example must be made.

"I think you need a demonstration," Mr. Brown said. "You need to see people hauled off in handcuffs and doing time."

Mr. Blevins said the blame for tolerating vote fraud and abuse lands at the Capitol.

Attorney general Ben Chandler said getting rid of vote fraud is easier said than done.

Mr. Chandler said many complaints are anonymous or too nebulous to be of use in prosecuting vote buying or selling, both of which are felonies.

"To successfully prosecute these crimes, we need better witnesses and better evidence," Mr. Chandler said earlier this month.

Even with hard evidence, convictions are rare.

Fifty-four people in Wayne County confessed to selling their votes in the 1998 election, but a local grand jury declined to indict anyone.

"People are reluctant to send their neighbors to jail for vote fraud," Mr. Chandler said.

Until the whole atmosphere changes, Mr. Brown laments the likelihood of fundamental change.

As he put it, unless the system changes, a clean candidate is likely to end up just that - a candidate.

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