LAWRENCE — A video suggesting community activist Isabel Melendez was passing out blank absentee ballots during the special election for Senate swept the Internet yesterday, prompting an investigation by local election officials and a heated denial by Melendez.
City Clerk Bill Maloney said his inquiry found no evidence of voter fraud.
The 26-second video was headlined, "Why is this woman handing out absentee ballots?" but didn't actually show Melendez handing out any ballots. Instead, it showed her pointing to a blank ballot and talking about her support for Democrat Martha Coakley.
In the background, Melendez can be heard saying, "I explain she's number two on the ballot."
The video was posted on YouTube by an online group called electionjournal.org, which describes itself as dedicated to raising awareness of voter fraud and election irregularities.
It spread quickly after being linked by popular Web sites like Instapundit, National Review Online and Michele Malkin's blog, which questioned whether it was evidence of fraud.
Melendez met with Maloney and bilingual elections coordinator Rafael Tejeda after two Republican election observers and others called them about the video.
"I had to inquire into the matter," Maloney said. "It was simply a discussion."
Maloney said he watched the video "and it was not taken at a polling place. In my report, I'll indicate it was a sample ballot and I don't see nothing wrong with that. It was taken out of context."
Friday was the last day to submit absentee ballots in the Senate election, so even if blank absentee forms were being handed out yesterday, they would not be counted. Tejeda said 276 absentee ballots were cast by Friday's deadline.
Melendez was outraged at the implication she committed election fraud.
"I don't like to be accused of something I didn't do," she said. "I know what's legal or illegal because I've been working in politics for 40 years."
Melendez said she believes the video was actually shot Monday during an appearance by Vicki Kennedy for Coakley at Mary Immaculate Nursing/Restorative Center in Lawrence.
She said she remembered talking to a man wearing a reporter's tag outside the event, though she said she did not remember being filmed.
Tejeda, the bilingual elections coordinator, said he saw nothing wrong with Melendez's actions as captured on the video.
"Like she says on the video, it was more educational and who the candidates are," he said.
Melendez said she has been trying to educate city voters on the special election, using sample ballots and her Spanish-language radio show.
"I wanted them to learn, I can't tell them who to vote for," she said.
Melendez also promotes voter registration through Votantes en Accion, Voters in Action, one of the many groups she founded.
Melendez is a longtime political activist, who, in 2001, became the first Hispanic to be nominated for mayor, losing a close race to Michael Sullivan. More recently she worked on William Lantigua's winning campaign for mayor.
Electionjournal.org was one of several out-of-state groups looking for evidence of fraud in yesterday's closely watched election.
Its video of Melendez did not indicate when or where it was shot and the group could not be reached for comment.
An organization calling itself Washington News Alert also e-mailed local and regional media with unsubstantiated reports of alleged voter fraud in Lawrence. The group is sponsored by Americans for Limited Government of Fairfax, Va.