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Ballot fraud constant concern

| Friday, April 16, 2004

GREENSBURG - All that prevents absentee ballot fraud is a carefully crafted signature, county elections officials said this week.

Handwritten names on applications for absentee ballots and also on the envelopes sent along with ballots provide a safeguard against bogus voting.

"It's signature comparison. That's the only method anyone can use. How else would you know?" said Paula T. Pedicone, director of the Westmoreland County Election Bureau.

Signature comparisons are used by most stores to ensure shoppers are the proper owners of credit cards.

Elections officials said signatures also are the best method to properly identify voters who cast absentee ballots usually sight unseen. Signatures of registered voters are kept on file with county election bureaus and compared with a new signatures required of them before they vote.

Absentee ballots bear new signatures required as part of an application request and also on the envelope sent with the ballots.

"The only reason we wouldn't count an absentee ballot is if the envelope isn't signed. The signature is the key, if it is not there or if (the ballot) is too late," Pedicone said of why a ballot would be discounted.

The county election bureau must receive applications for absentee ballots by April 20 for voters to participate in the April 27 primary. All properly signed ballots must be returned to the county by 5 p.m. April 23.

Elections officials concede that the absentee ballot system could be targeted for potential fraud, but the signature requirement has prevented most attempts.

Pedicone said she can't recall any instances in Westmoreland County where the validity of absentee ballots was called into question.

Just seven years ago in Fayette County, authorities prosecuted three people, including former U.S. Rep. Austin J. Murphy, for a scheme in which absentee ballots were forged with the names of residents at a Wharton Township nursing home.

Authorities were able to use handwriting experts to determine the ballots in question were not signed by the nursing home residents.

Fayette County set up a procedure in which each application for an absentee ballot is numbered to protect against potential fraud.

Laurie Nicholson, director of the Fayette County Election Bureau, could not be reached for comment.

State officials said there are no other election laws or requirements in place specifically geared to prevent fraud.

"After (signatures), it is for each county to decide what to do," said Pennsylvania Department of State spokesman Brian McDonald.

Other forms of identification will be required this year for all first-time voters, both via absentee ballots and at the polls.

Under the federal government's Help America Vote Act, all first-time voters are required to present identification in addition to a signature comparison. Most other forms of identification, including drivers' licenses, firearms permits or bank statements, can be used, McDonald said.

The secondary identification also is required for first-time voters who cast absentee ballots. Voters will be required to send in a copy of another form of identification with the absentee ballots, McDonald said.

If voters show up at the polls or cast absentee ballots without the secondary form of identification, those votes will be considered provisional. They will be counted only after county election officials confirm they were submitted by properly registered voters.

Earlier this year the state Supreme Court further tightened the threshold election bureaus can use to keep track of absentee ballots.

The state's high court ruled those ballots either must be mailed in or hand-delivered by the voter. No third parties can bring in absentee ballots.

That ruling came as Democrats and Republicans fought over nearly every one of the more than 2.2 million votes cast last November in the race for Superior Court judge. That election eventually was won by Republican Montgomery County attorney Susan Gantman, who defeated Westmoreland County Judge John Driscoll, a Democrat, by just 28 votes.

Republicans and Democrats went to court challenging the validity of hundreds of absentee ballots brought to the Allegheny County Election Bureau members on behalf of a group of Democratic voters. Those votes eventually were ruled invalid.

Westmoreland County never has accepted absentee ballots submitted by third parties, Pedicone said.

Driscoll still is contesting Gantman's election in federal court, challenging several counties, including Westmoreland, for not properly differentiating the use of alternative ballots.

Alternative ballots, like absentee ballots, are sent in via mail. But unlike absentee ballots, alternative ballots can be submitted to the election bureau until the day of an election and are only to be used by elderly, handicapped voters whose polling places are not accessible to them.

No alternative ballots have been requested so far this spring in Westmoreland County, Pedicone said.

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