By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE – Allegations of voting irregularities in this city are as old as elections, and they continued last week when the city councilor who will challenge Mayor William Lantigua on Nov. 5 said the city is incapable of running the election and asked the state to take it over.
“I believe that Clerk (William) Maloney is ill-equipped personally and allows his fear of the mayor to drive him to be biased,” said City Councilor Daniel Rivera, who advanced to the general election after finishing second to Lantigua in Tuesday’s preliminary election. “He should be removed as the lead election official and a state official (should) be placed in charge.”
Rivera also said he will ask Secretary of State William Galvin to place observers in all 24 of the city’s polling places on Election Day to prevent a recurrence of what he called a “large number of irregularities” on Tuesday.
Galvin sent at least two representatives to observe Tuesday’s preliminary election. Brian McNiff, a spokesman for Galvin, would not say whether they observed irregularities and did not return a phone call Friday seeking comment on Rivera’s request that his office relieve the city from the task of running the general election in seven weeks.
The request caps a long history of distrust between Rivera and Maloney, including a confrontation outside a polling place Tuesday when Maloney told Rivera he was within the 150-foot perimeter of the entrance where campaigning is not allowed and told him to step back.
At the same time, Rivera said poll workers looked the other way while he said Lantigua campaigned inside polling places Tuesday. Rivera could not provide the names of anyone who may have seen Lantigua inside a polling place. Lantigua did not return a phone call Friday.
Maloney, who supervises the three Election Division employees and hires and trains hundreds of poll workers, also did not return a phone call.
The list of poll workers Maloney and Lantigua initially proposed for this year’s elections included several city employees who were eventually stricken from the list because city workers cannot collect two city paychecks. Justo Garcia, a city parking attendant and Lantigua campaign aide who was indicted last week for skimming proceeds from the Museum Square garage, was among the employees taken off the list.
Lawrence elections have been run under the thumb of the state and federal governments at least since 1998, when the U.S. Department of Justice claimed that the city’s method of electing City Council and School Committee members discriminated against Hispanics. The city agreed to several reforms, including electing some members by districts rather than at-large and to appoint bi-lingual officials in its elections office and on its Board of Registrars. The city was later ordered to redraw the district lines.
More recently, Rivera held a council hearing a few days after last year’s presidential election, when the lines at the city’s polls were as deep as 400 people and the wait to cast a ballot was as long as three hours.
Other city councilors and an election warden said the overflow at the polls occurred because the city was not prepared for the turnout, alleging that untrained poll workers mishandled voters, active voters were missing from the rolls, too few polling booths were available and that voters were left in the dark when the lights went off outside one polling place.
In another instance at the Partham School, an Eagle-Tribune reporter saw the desktop of a wooden booth collapse when a voter pressed his pen to it. The city council recently approved spending $100,000 to replace voting booths, some of which date to Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency.
“The City Clerk was not prepared and planned poorly,” Rivera said at the hearing last year. “When voting locations are running out of pens at 10 in the morning... I think the City Clerk is over his capacity and is unable to handle some of the requests he’s got on the ground.”
In 2011, the organizers of an effort to recall Lantigua accused Maloney of attempting to sabotage the effort by failing to sign blank petition sheets as he provided the sheets to the people who would carry them. Any sheets without Maloney’s signature might have been invalidated had the recall made it to the next step.
When the council called Maloney in for an explanation, he said he had faith in the Election Division.
“I’m confident the staff in the Election Division, limited though they may be, do an excellent job,” Maloney said. “Are there things we can do better? Always.”
“I’m sure you’ve convinced yourself,” Rivera said. “You just need to convince everyone else.”
Friday, Rivera reiterated that if he is elected, he will seek to fire Maloney. Firing department heads requires the approval of six of the nine city councilors.
Other Election Division employees have faced other allegations.
Last year, a handwriting expert hired by The Eagle-Tribune concluded that Rafael Tejeda, the bilingual coordinator in the Elections Division hired as a result of the federal Voting Rights suit against the city, faked four signatures on nominating petitions for State Rep. Frank Moran, who also is president of the Lawrence City Council.
Secretary of State Galvin said he would investigate the allegation, then reversed himself, saying through a spokesman that no investigation was needed because Tejeda denied faking the signatures when the newspaper questioned him.
Pam Wilmot, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of Common Cause, a non-partisan organization that advocates for campaign finance reform nationwide, said Lawrence is known across the state for elections shenanigans.
“We hear the name of Lawrence lots of times - for long lines, for potential discriminatory actions, for allegations of wrongdoing,” Wilmot said. “It’s in the news constantly.”