Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

October 31, 2012

Pills for votes?

The real challenge will come in 2014, not this Tuesday

The Independent

ASHLAND — The top election officials in Kentucky and West Virginia have joined hands to warn their states’ politicians they’ll be closely watched in the upcoming election to make sure they’re not trading money, favors or drugs for votes.

In fact, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes said the prescription drug epidemic in both states increases the chances of pain pills being traded for votes.

Sadly, Kentucky has a long history of election fraud, as does neighboring West Virginia. But traditionally the fraud has involved people paying cash for votes or doing favors such as spreading gravel on driveways. Only in recent years has Kentucky had instances of prescription drugs being swapped for votes.

The widespread abuse of painkillers has pushed up Kentucky’s crime rate. More Kentuckians now die from prescription overdoses than traffic crashes. Grimes said elections officials can’t ignore those statistics when it comes to the Nov. 6 election.

“In addition to putting our families at risk, the demand for prescription drugs is also putting our elections at risk,” she said during a press conference at the state Capitol. “As Kentucky’s secretary of state and chief election officer, I’m here to tell you that our elections are not and will not be for sale.”

Allegations of pills being traded for votes came in the 2008 federal indictment of former mayoral candidate Bob Madon of Pineville, who later pleaded guilty to buying votes. The indictment charged Madon with giving voters cash and pills for their votes.

Grimes said protecting the integrity of the election process is crucial and swapping votes for pills or dollar bills won’t be tolerated.

West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said election officials in her state also will be on the lookout for criminals who would chip away at democracy by buying votes.

“Our states, West Virginia and Kentucky, do have a reputation of having some people who would be unscrupulous and want to manipulate our election process,” Tennant said. “We are working to change that culture.”

U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey from the eastern district of Kentucky appeared with Grimes and Tennant in Frankfort to reaffirm the federal government’s resolve in prosecuting election fraud cases.

“We intend to do everything within our power to make sure that this election is a free and fair election, and that those who might seek to subvert the integrity of the election receive special attention from our office,” he said.

Federal prosecutor Ken Taylor said vote buying has persisted in Kentucky despite several prison sentences being meted out over the past decade. “When we stamp it out in one place, it comes up in another,” he said. “We stamp out one form of it, and it comes up in another form somewhere else.”

However, nearly all of the election fraud cases in Kentucky have involved county, city and, in rare cases,  school board races, and while city and school board races are on the ballot this fall, there are only a handful of races for mayor and no county races this year. That greatly reduces the odds of fraud being a major problem in this year’s election. With Kentucky only playing a minor role in this year’s presidential race, we can’t imagine anyone paying money or giving pills to anyone to buy their votes. In fact, vote buying rarely if ever occurs in statewide races in this state, much less in national races.

It is 2014 that Grimes should be most concerned about. That’s when countywide races will be on the ballot, and in more counties than we care to count in recent years candiates have been charged and convicted of election fraud, usually for buying votes in the May primary election. Vote fraud has become so frequent and so widespread in recent years it has made Kentucky a laughingstock in other states. Nothing could be better for democracy in this state and to improve its tarnish reputatoin than for Kentucky to have a year of county and city races without convictions for election fraud.

However, the real challenge for Grimes and for local election officials is in two years, not Tuesday. Since there are no elections slated in the state in 2013, Grimes has two years to take the steps to help assure local elections in May and November of 2014 are free of fraud.