By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — An observer sent by the state to monitor last month’s preliminary election reported finding “confusion and overall chaos” at several polling places, where he said election workers gave ballots to people not on the voter rolls, examined completed ballots and allowed candidates to walk around freely inside.
The alleged irregularities may have been most widespread at the Valebrook Apartments on Union Street, where observer Ramon Trinidad said he found “chaos, electioneering and overall disruption of the election process.”
“It was hard to see where the lines went and it was easy for people to enter the voting area to ‘help’ voters with their ballot,” Trinidad said about the polling place, which serves precinct B4 and gave Mayor William Lantigua 64 percent of the vote against five other candidates in the Sept. 17 election. “This included a candidate who was on the ballot being in the voting area and freely walking around the polling place greeting and meeting people.”
Trinidad did not identify the candidate in his report and would not comment when reached yesterday. His report said he saw the candidate “interfering with the election process,” but provided no details.
Trinidad also reported seeing poll workers who seemed to be telling voters how to vote and observers working for candidates intermingling with poll workers in ways that made them indistinguishable. He said cramped and poorly laid out polling places invited the irregularities and added to the confusion.
Trinidad also said City Clerk William Maloney, the city’s top election official, told him he found a warden who was “writing in voters’ names on the voters list who were not on there to begin with and allowing them to vote.”
Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, responded to the report yesterday by saying her organization would consider sending a team of lawyers and other observers to Lawrence for the general election on Nov. 5, when voters will choose between Lantigua and City Councilor Daniel Rivera and also will elect a City Council and two school committees. She said the irregularities Trinidad identified are “very concerning.”
“They go from something fairly mundane but important, like not posting (Voter Bill of Rights) signs to very serious problems, such as writing in names on the voter list and looking at voters’ ballots,” Wilmot said. “These are both extreme violations of your basic elections procedures and voters’ rights to secret ballots.”
“Observers (for candidates) can be helpful, but they also can be a glitch in the process,” Wilmot said about the volunteers that candidates post at the polls. “They can bully election officials to doing things their way.”
Rivera last week called on Michelle Tassinari, director of the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Election Division, to take over management of the election from Maloney, the city clerk, and place observers at all 24 polling places in the city to ensure a fair election. Tassinari said she does not have the power to take over local elections or the manpower to staff all Lawrence’s polling places, although she said observers will return to the city on Nov. 5. She also said Rivera’s complaint lacked specifics.
Yesterday, Rivera said Trinidad’s report provided the specifics.
“If this isn’t proof enough, what else does he need?” Rivera said, referring to Tassinari’s superior, Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin. “This is not a third party, not an anonymous source. This is somebody sent from his office to observe and they observed what we’ve observed: chaos. Voters losing their expectation of a secret ballot. People penciling in people’s names on the voter list.”
Tassinari and Brian McNiff, a spokesman for Galvin, were not in the office yesterday and could not be reached, said a clerk in their office who did not identify himself. He referred questions about the report to Nancy Driscoll, another spokeswoman for Galvin, who did not return a phone call.
The Eagle-Tribune filed a Public Records Law request for Trinidad’s report on Oct. 3, after McNiff declined to say whether Trinidad noted any irregularities during the preliminary election. Tassinari released the report late Monday.
Trinidad’s report adds to the list of alleged voting irregularities in a city with a history of them dating at least to 1998, when the federal government alleged that its at-large system of elections diluted the voting power of Hispanics. The city settled the suit by creating election districts for City Council and School Committee candidates, and later was ordered to redraw the district lines.
More recently, a handwriting expert hired by The Eagle-Tribune last year concluded that city Election Division employee Rafael Tejeda faked the signatures of four of his neighbors — including a Dominican citizen — on nominating petitions for Frank Moran, the City Council president who was elected to the Statehouse. Tejeda denied the allegation.
Also last year, the city appeared overwhelmed by the turnout for the presidential election, when polling places ran out of pens, voting booths collapsed under the weight of voters and the lines at some polling places were as deep as 400 people, and the wait to cast a ballot was as long as three hours as untrained poll workers worked through voter rolls that were sprinkled with errors.
A City Council committee chaired by Rivera held hearings on the shortcomings after the 2012 election. When it ended, Rivera said Maloney should be fired.
Maloney could not be reached yesterday.
But in a cover letter that accompanied his report, Trinidad said Maloney “is a very willing candidate for the job of continuing to make the election process in Lawrence better.”
“Overall,” Trinidad said, “I think the election process in Lawrence has come a very long way from where it was.”