S.D. officials reviewing vote fraud claims

By MARK HAUGEN and DAN OLMSTED  |  Dec. 6, 2002 at 8:35 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 6 (UPI) -- The South Dakota attorney general's office is reviewing allegations of fraud in the November election in which Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson beat his Republican challenger by 524 votes, an official said Friday.

Meanwhile, United Press International received further details from several Republican poll watchers about alleged improprieties they said they witnessed, including operation of a get-out-the-vote effort from within polling stations and attempts to vote using a variety of names.

Democrats have denied these claims, which were first reported by UPI Wednesday.

"We have gotten allegations and accusations of various improprieties," Deputy Attorney General Robert Mayer confirmed to UPI Friday. "We are reviewing them. If some merit follow-up, we would ask the Department of Criminal Investigation to investigate."

But he added that because some of the allegations center on polling places on Indian reservations, "there is a very serious question whether we would have jurisdiction" to pursue alleged crimes there. He said that might be up to federal officials.

Mayer cautioned against making too much of the review, saying "it's our job" to look at any allegation of illegal activity. He said he was "not a liberty" to say how far the review had proceeded.

UPI first reported on Wednesday that several South Dakota Republicans say they witnessed serious irregularities in the Nov. 5 election in which incumbent Johnson eked out a narrow victory over Republican U.S. Rep. John Thune. Democrats said the charges are untrue and that Republicans have made a habit of claiming fraud after losing close elections.

Among the allegations leveled in interviews with UPI and in affidavits collected by the Republican Party:

-- Three people being offered money for voting for Johnson.

-- Voters giving two or three names to election personnel before finding a name that matched on the voter rolls, which they would use to cast their ballot.

-- The Democratic Party organizing voter rides from inside the polling place.

Thune decided not to seek a recount, but Republican National Committee spokesman Jim Dyke said, "The RNC is very interested in investigating fraud and putting a stop to it if they find it."

Johnson's campaign manager, Steve Hildebrand, dismissed the complaints as unfounded and uncorroborated and said the campaign was conducted honestly.

The poll watchers say they witnessed pro-Johnson electioneering activities inside of polling places located near Indian reservations and saw partisan pro-Johnson, anti-Republican literature left out in balloting areas. Both are violations of laws concerning the conduct of elections.

They also say they witnessed efforts to intimidate poll workers who questioned the activity.

One focus of alleged problems is Todd County, home to the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Registered Democrats there outnumber Republicans 5 to 1, making it a target for state Democratic Party and Johnson campaign get-out-the-vote efforts. Johnson won Todd County 2,027-464.

Several Republican poll watchers assert they witnessed voters giving multiple names to poll workers until a match permitting them to vote could be found on the voter rolls.

"They'd go through two or three names and say, 'Okay, gotcha here,'" said Darla Assman (pronounced ahs-mahn), a poll watcher in the South Mission Precinct in Todd County.

"What I thought, and a lot of people thought, is they could do that in Mission, because there was a lot of confusion with the lists, and then go out to Parmalee and vote again. It's sure possible the way they were hauling them around."

South Dakota election law says anyone impersonating a registered voter is guilty of a felony.

Her brother-in-law Ed Assman said he witnessed similar activities at the Parmalee precinct. "A voter would say: 'I'm Joyce Two Elk.' The election official would say: 'There's nobody registered under that name.' Then the lady would say: 'Check Joyce Two Bulls.' They might go through three names until they got a hit. I'm not sure what was going on with that. Who she really was, I don't know." He said that happened 30 to 40 different times while he observed.

A third poll watcher, Ray Stewart of the North Antelope Precinct, said he also witnessed similar activity. "We had one lady come in to vote. She was registered to vote on South Antelope and also registered at North Antelope on another name. She had the potential to vote twice. That's not an isolated case, either."

Other complaints are described in the upcoming Dec. 23 issue of National Review, a conservative news and opinion magazine. Byron York reports that Republican Noma Sazma, a member of the local election board who votes in the St. Thomas Parish Hall in Mission, was surprised when a group of Democratic lawyers arrived to serve as poll watcher.

"The Democratic team quickly set up shop in the Parish Hall kitchen, just a few feet from the tables where voters would cast their ballots," York wrote. "The party had rented dozens of vans and hired drivers to bring voters to the polls, and the out-of-state lawyers make the kitchen their transportation headquarters. It took her a few minutes to realize that the Democrats intended to run their get-out-the vote effort from inside the polling place."

Democrat Nancy Wanless told York she witnessed the same things. "They were on the phone using it to call I don't know where," York quotes her saying. "I needed to call because we had some new districting. They were always talking on it."

"When Wanless protested," York writes, "she got a chilly reaction from the out-of-towners. 'I felt like they were trying to intimidate me.'"

The Johnson-Thune race was one of the nastier contests in 2002. At stake in the South Dakota race and in a half-dozen other key races across the country was whether the Republicans or Democrats would be the majority party in the U.S. Senate.

As it turned out, Republicans regained control of the Senate even as they lost the South Dakota race. Thune declined to seek a recount, saying that it was in the best interests of the state to avoid a messy post-election challenge.

Some conservatives criticized the decision, saying voters had been deprived of their franchise and the case should be pursued whether or not control of the Senate hung in the balance. They believe Thune did not pursue the matter because he feared the political fall out would prevent him from challenging Tom Daschle in 2004 should the Democrat's senate leader seek re-election.

Allegations of fraud were made prior to the election involving activists working on voter registration and absentee ballots for the Democrats' coordinated campaign effort. Auditors in several West River counties raised concerns about some of the documents submitted to their offices. An initial investigation revealed that absentee ballot applications had been filed for people who don't exist or had recently died.

One man was charged with forgery for allegedly submitting fraudulent registration cards. Officials said the man turned in 226 voter registration cards, most allegedly fraudulent.

UPI obtained copies of affidavits taken by the Republicans from two women and one man, all Native Americans, who said: "I was promised $10 if I would go vote. I was given a ride to the polls in a van with Tim Johnson for Senate signs in the window. The name of the van driver was Terry. After I voted, the van took me back from the polling place. When Terry dropped me off, he offered me $10 for voting.

It is a Class 2 misdemeanor in South Dakota for any person to pay money to induce a voter to vote.

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