Alabama County Accused Of Voter Fraud

Once, civil rights activists faced police batons and tear gas over the voting rights of people in Perry County in Alabama. Voting troubles still plague the community. State and federal officials have been looking into accusations of voting rights abuses. This time, the concern is voter fraud and inflated absentee balloting.

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Prosecutors in Alabama say they've seen one type of corrupt election replaced by another. Alabama's one of the states where black citizens marched for the right to vote in the 1960s. Whites who resisted with violence are still being prosecuted today, and the Voting Rights Act commanded an end to discrimination.

It seems not to have affected basic corruption at the ballot box. That's the story some voters told NPR's Audie Cornish.

AUDIE CORNISH: Griff Collins(ph) claims he was offered $30 for his vote in a recent election, but his relatives say he's taken so much heat for speaking out about it, he didn't make it to our interview. Instead, his cousin, Wanda Reed Sanders(ph), came in his place, adding her own story of how she believes a county commissioner tried to manipulate her absentee ballot.

Ms. WANDA REED SANDERS: He came around to my house, and he say when the ballot come back, he was going to come and pick my ballot up. And I told him, I said no, you're not coming back to my house anymore. And he called me all kind of names.

CORNISH: Alabama's attorney general seized the voting records of Perry and two other rural counties after local activists complained. At a recent anti-voter fraud rally in Marion, Secretary of State Beth Chapman asked for help.

Secretary of State Beth Chapman (Alabama): If you call us and say so-and-so's doing this, we need that information, but you've got to give me times, you've got to give me dates, and you've got to give me places.

CORNISH: Federal officials have already monitored elections in several Alabama counties this year, but the ghost of poll taxes, literacy tests and violence again black voters linger. Resident Murray Jackson's(ph) even suspicious of federal monitors.

Mr. MURRAY JACKSON: It seems to me that they was doing more harassing than anyone else, you know, with them following people around, harassing them, seeing who they are voting for, taking their privacy away as far as voting. I think that's a problem.

CORNISH: But others at the rally, like Vanessa Hill(ph), are eager to get voter abuses under control. Hill initially lost a 2004 mayoral bid because of it.

Ms. VANESSA HILL: It wasn't so much the fact that I had lost. I can accept defeat, but it was the way that it was done, and everything was so obvious.

CORNISH: So obvious that when she challenged the election, the state courts agreed that her opponent's so-called win involved shady absentee ballots - this in the past of the state where 40 years ago, citizens demonstrated in the face of brutal police force, and civil rights activists like Martin Luther King joined their efforts.

Alvin Benn is a newspaper columnist with the Montgomery Advertiser.

Mr. ALVIN BENN (Columnist, Montgomery Advertiser): You've got to understand, some of these Black Belt counties in the mid-'60s, before the voting rights law went into effect, did not have one black voter on the rolls - not one.

CORNISH: Benn says these days, it seems like the counties have swapped corrupt black candidates for the old white ones. One of the first cases Benn covered as a reporter in 1980s involved the federal trial of three black elected officials, themselves civil rights activists, who were accused of voter fraud. All were acquitted. But today, one of their sons faces similar allegations. And when I caught up with Perry County Commissioner Albert Turner, Jr. by some fountains at a convention center, he denied the accusations.

Mr. ALBERT TURNER, JR. (County Commissioner, Perry County, Alabama): They are alleging vote fraud. Nobody's been convicted. My father wasn't convicted. My mother wasn't convicted, and I know for myself what I've done, and I've done nothing, and I don't even waste any sleep thinking about a vote fraud investigation.

CORNISH: Turner points to GOP-backed attempts to tighter voter ID laws and says it's no surprise that Republican state prosecutors are searching for fraudulent votes, especially in a year with a large and energetic black Democratic turnout. Still, voters both white and black continue to come forward with claims, and while some people are afraid to speak up, Wanda Reed Sanders isn't.

Ms. SANDERS: I'm going to vote, and I'm going to vote the way I want to vote, not the way somebody would want me to vote.

CORNISH: And her next chance is tomorrow, in what will be a closely scrutinized county election. Audie Cornish, NPR News, Selma, Alabama.

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