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Westmoreland News - November 19, 1999

Fayette aiming for election roll purge

By Joe Abramowitz TRIBUNE-REVIEW

The Fayette County commissioners on Thursday decided to move, albeit slowly, toward a countywide purge of the election rolls.

"We have to wait to make sure all applicable laws are followed," said Commissioner Sean Cavanagh.

The board directed election bureau Director Laurie Nicholson to contact postal officials to determine the cost of a direct mail program to identify ineligible voters.

At a budget session Tuesday, Nicholson requested $20,000 be placed in the 2000 budget to cover the cost of a registration purge.

Earlier this week, the commissioners talked about removing from the voter registration rolls those who are deceased, have moved away or have not voted in the past three years.

However, in a memorandum to the commissioners, assistant county Solicitor John S. Cupp Jr. indicated that failure to vote is not grounds for removal from the rolls.

Cupp wrote the state election law permits local election boards to identify registered electors as being inactive, but nothing else.

"Previously, various sections of the statute allowed for cancellation for failure to vote if the elector had not voted for a period of two years," Cupp wrote. "These sections have been suspended, however, to come into compliance with the federal voting act."

At a Tuesday agenda session, Cavanagh suggested county election bureau officials use obituaries printed in local newspapers to identify deceased voters.

One of the programs is available through the U.S. Postal Service, which contracts with vendors to identify electors who have changed addresses.

The other program permits county election boards to engage in direct mail programs in which nonforwardable, first-class notices are sent to all registered electors. Under the system, registered voters must confirm residence or existence via return mail.

Cavanagh and fellow commissioners Vincent Vicites and Harry Albert III indicated they are leaning toward the direct mail program.

The commissioners decided to pursue a voter registration purge based on recommendations by the informal commissioner-appointed Fayette County Voter Fraud Committee and a grand jury formed in March to investigate election irregularities stemming from the 1997 primary election in Wharton Township.

In a 102-point presentment issued Oct. 27, the grand jury condemned the county's electoral system and ripped current and past commissioners for failure to put in place policies and procedures to ensure free and fair elections.

The grand jury estimated that 7,000 people - 10 percent of the registered electorate - either are dead or are ineligible to vote.

In addition, the grand jury criticized the commissioners for failure to make changes in the face of the Wharton election scandal, which resulted in criminal charges against three township residents, including former U.S. Rep. Austin J. Murphy.

Jack Heneks, the Fayette County assistant district attorney who headed the grand jury investigation, presented the panel's findings to the commissioners yesterday.

Although Heneks said he, presiding Judge Gerald R. Solomon and the grand jury are bound by secrecy rules, the district attorney's office will issue an additional statement regarding the investigation after the cases against Murphy and the others are adjudicated.

In exchange for a reduction in charges, Murphy, Peggy Bouras and Shirley Hughes agreed to testify before the grand jury and were allowed to apply for entry into the county's Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program for first-time, nonviolent offenders.

Cavanagh asked Heneks why a deal was cut with the three, and called on the prosecutor to compare the Fayette investigation with a recent Allegheny County probe into election irregularities.

In the Allegheny County case, a Harrison Township man has been accused of providing absentee ballots for another township resident to forge in connection with the spring primary. Both Harrison residents were arrested last month.

Heneks noted that the Allegheny County investigation was patently different because it involved recent events. The Fayette County probe reached back to 1995.

Delinda Young of Uniontown, a member of the voter fraud committee, urged the commissioners to move cautiously in developing the purge and to appoint an inspector of elections to assure that voters are who they say they are.

Brian Lutes, a self-styled political activist from Uniontown, said the offer he made two years ago to serve as inspector of elections remained open.

Albert said it would be a waste of money to include recent voters in the direct mailing program.

Lutes, though, said the county "got to this situation because nobody checked the registration cards when they came in.

"If we send these out for $20,000 and send them to people who did wrong in the first place, they will send them back and say, `Yeah, everything's OK,'" Lutes said. "We need an inspector of registration."

Lutes said the election code requires the commissioners to appoint at least one person to fill the position.

"It's a waste of money without an inspector of registration," Lutes said.

Referring to a December meeting of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, Cavanagh said he and Vicites plan to lobby for greater controls to assure fair elections.

"We have to sit down and look at all the recommendations of the grand jury and the voter fraud committee," Vicites said. "We have to get strong programs in place."

Copyright 1999 The Herald-Standard.

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