Residents cry foul over ballots
By: PETER HALL
Bucks County Courier Times
A petition was filed with the Board of Elections over absentee ballots.
VOTE REPUBLICAN - Save our Country!
A trio of Bucks County residents backed by the county Republican committee say they have evidence linking Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy's campaign to a scheme to flood the county voter registration office with fraudulent applications for absentee ballots.
In a petition filed Tuesday, county Republicans say the name of Murphy's campaign manager appeared on a Bristol post office box where voters were urged in a series of letters paid for by the state Democratic Committee to send absentee ballot applications.
The county Republicans submitted with the petition a photograph of a note inside the mailbox that said, "Tim Percico and Paul Hampel only pick up mail." Tim Persico is Murphy's campaign manager, although his name is misspelled in the note. Hampel is a volunteer for the Democratic state committee who said he collects mail from the box.
While county and state Democratic officials denied involvement in the letter campaign or refused to discuss it, Persico said Tuesday that the "PA Vote 2010" project that paid for the letters is a partnership between Murphy's campaign and the state Democrats.
Persico said the goal of the project is to help eligible Democratic voters obtain and cast absentee ballots.
He dismissed assertions by Republican critics that the letters were misleadingly worded and noted that the Democratic state committee clearly takes credit for the mailings, which comply with all election laws.
"The only reason the Republican Party is mad is working parents and college kids are sending in an application because they want to vote," Persico said.
Neither Murphy nor a spokeswoman for his campaign returned calls Tuesday.
Bucks County Democratic Party Chairman John Cordisco said the county Democratic organization has no connection to the letters or the fraud alleged in the petition. "If there was voter registration fraud, it was being done outside the Democratic organization," Cordisco said.
In response to the Republican petition, the Bucks County Board of Elections scheduled a hearing 9:30 a.m. Friday at the courthouse to hear evidence of what the Republicans characterize as a coordinated effort to trick voters into improperly applying for absentee ballots and efforts to submit fraudulent applications for absentee ballots.
"While some of these invalid applications have been caught and rejected by the Board of Elections, we believe many other defective and objectionable applications were inadvertently approved by the Board of Elections due to the pervasive nature of the fraud," the petition says.
The petition also asks county election officials to secure all completed absentee ballots at the courthouse in Doylestown until the board of elections can conduct an investigation of the claims.
The petition is signed by Kelly McGinty of Middletown, and Carlo and Lucy Grilletto of Plumstead. Bucks County Republican Party Vice Chairwoman Pat Poprik said party officials and volunteers have gathered evidence in support of the claims put forth in the petition. The signatories are people who have been involved in the Republican Party, she said.
"They're a group of people who are just disgusted with what's been going on," Poprik said. "God bless them, they came forward to do something about it."
The petition is the latest in a series of alarms county and state Republicans have sounded over an influx of questionable absentee ballot applications. Last week, Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler said his office would investigate allegations of fraud leveled by state and county Republican officials.
Voter Registration Director Deena Dean said her staff had rejected more than 600 defective absentee ballot applications as of Friday. Although the voter registration office continued to accept applications until the close of business Tuesday, Dean was unable to provide an updated total.
The petition focused foremost on a series of letters voters in Bucks County began receiving some time after Labor Day. On letterhead of the fictitious Pennsylvania Voter Assistance Office, the mailings warned recipients that their right to participate in the Nov. 2 election might be in jeopardy if they failed to respond.
Advertisement The letters are signed by Frank S. Schultz, a Levittown resident who contributed $2,750 to Murphy's 2008 campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records.
The letters included an absentee ballot application and a postage-paid envelope addressed to post office box 2172 at the Bristol Borough post office on Beaver Street. The petition includes a photo in which the note containing Persico's name is visible through the window of the post office box.
"The bogus letter seeks to trick voters into needlessly registering for absentee ballots and then, for reasons unknown, causes them to send those ballots to a post office box apparently controlled by the Democratic candidate for Congress," the petition says.
Poprik said the photograph was taken Monday by a volunteer for the county Republican committee who she declined to name. The photograph bears a date stamp of "08/06/2009," which Poprik said was the result of the camera being improperly set up.
"The applications then appear to be sent to a central processing location to be gathered, screened and held, as evidenced by the fact that the dates on numerous applications are dated several weeks before the application were received in the Board of Elections," the petition says.
Persico said the purpose of collecting the applications at a central location is to track who applied and ensure that they have received their ballots.
The petition also cites a widely circulated e-mail from the Murphy campaign that encourages affiliates to gather absentee ballot applications from infrequent voters.
Six Bucks County residents provided affidavits included in the petition in which they describe encounters with campaign workers who instructed them to complete absentee ballot applications when they did not plan to be out of town for the election or to sign the names of family members to obtain ballots for them.
One woman said that she received the Pennsylvania Voter Assistance Office letters and discarded them. "Nonetheless an absentee ballot was submitted in her name," the petition says.
Finally, the petition says the volume of rejected ballot applications suggests that additional incomplete and fraudulent applications have inadvertently passed through the board of elections screening process.
"More time is needed to test the veracity and reliability of those ballots already submitted to the Board of Elections," the petition says.
Bucks County Commissioner Chairman Charley Martin, who also chairs the board of elections, said he consulted the board's solicitor and believes that a hearing to consider the petitioners' evidence is appropriate.
Martin said the board will hear the evidence and take action to address any problems within its power.
"If it is not in the bailiwick of the board of elections then it will be for the district attorney to consider," Martin said.
Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia, who is also a member of the board of elections, said she has questions whether the board of elections has authority under the election code to consider problems with absentee ballot applications. Marseglia also said she is not worried about the integrity of absentee ballots themselves.
Marseglia added that the controversy over absentee ballots involves two distinct issues - the matter of the misleading Democratic state committee letters and the question of whether forged applications are being submitted.
"I don't think the board of elections has any responsibility to deal with a political piece," she said. "We have a responsibility to deal with absentee ballots."
Murphy's Republican opponent Mike Fitzpatrick called the allegations very serious. He noted that he took an interest in the rejected ballot applications last week, but said the county Republican party has done all of the investigating.
"I think the allegations are very serious and the potential fraud upon the voters of this county is substantial," Fitzpatrick said.
Peter Hall can be reached at 215-345-3067 or phall@phillyBurbs.com