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VA Group to Examine Polk Election
by Rick Rousos

May 29, 1997

Copyright 1997 The Lakeland Ledger

BARTOW- A Virginia organization that investigates allegations of election fraud has dispatched a retired FBI agent to Polk County to examine the 1996 County Commission election.

The Voting Integrity Project became involved at the request of County Commissioner Nancy Hedrick and another Polk resident whom the Virginia group won't name.

The organization, based in Chantilly, Va., describes itself as nonpartisan and nonprofit. It has sent a "professional voting fraud expert" to investigate the November election, according to a VIP fund-raising letter sent to several Polk County residents.

Hedrick was one of two Polk residents to formally request that the VIP become involved. The election is now under review by a Polk grand jury.

"I believe that your organization would do a great service to the public if it would investigate this election and present its findings to that grand jury," Hedrick wrote in a letter to Deborah Phillips, VIP's president. "There were many unanswered questions about the election that are deeply troubling."

Helen Blackwell, VIP's chairman, would not give the name of the other person who formally requested an investigation. "Several people contacted us in addition to Nancy," Blackwell said. "We're trying to get at the real story" of the 1996 election.

In the election between County Commissioner Marlene Young, a Democrat, and Republican Bruce Parker, Parker won two machine counts of the votes. A hand recount was stopped by the Elections Canvassing Board that included Hedrick, and Parker was declared the winner. Young successfully sued to have the ballots counted by hand, and she won the court-ordered recount.

VIP was organized in March 1996 and incorporated in October. The group has investigated a race in Louisiana, Blackwell said.

Larry J. Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia, disputes the notion that VIP is nonpartisan.

It's clearly a conservative Republican organization," he said. The former chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia has been doing some work for them.

"This is not rocket science. In Louisiana, for instance, they jumped in where there was a Democratic seat under siege by Republicans. My research shows that conservative causes are clearly the nature of the group."

Blackwell said that Sabato's analysis is wrong.

"It isn't true," she said. "These are instances of fairness. We're not trying to help either party or any particular candidate. We're just trying to get at the truth. We've never even heard of any of these people (in Polk County)."

A VIP fund-raising letter was sent to "selected" Polk Countians, with the hope of raising money to pay for the investigation, Blackwell said. The letter claims it costs $500 per day to investigate an election, a figure that does not include expenses.

"Unfortunately, that's the going rate," Blackwell said.

Former Winter Haven Mayor Carl Strang received one of the letters.

"I have no idea why," he said.

A former FBI agent has been investigating for a few weeks, Blackwell said. She declined to identify him, but said his report would be made public when it's done.

The VIP investigation was news to Helen Gienau, Polk County's supervisor of elections.

"Nobody has been here," Gienau said Wednesday. "But they're welcome to come on down. Why not? Everybody else has been here."

Copyright 1998 Voting Integrity Project. All rights reserved.
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