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‘Tainted’ Mass. Elections? Not So, Say These Experts

January 27, 2019
The polls are open for early voters at Westford Town Hall in October 2016.

LOWELL -- The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance asked Secretary of State Bill Galvin to ensure that more than 700 registered voters who cast ballots last fall in eight cities across the state “do not continue to taint our elections,” hinting at fraud. But a trio of independent experts who study elections and election law said what the Fiscal Alliance actually found does not, on its own, indicate fraud took place.

On Sept. 4, the Fiscal Alliance sent public records requests to clerks in eight Massachusetts cities -- Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill, Methuen, Brockton, Framingham, Milford and Franklin -- for a list of everyone who cast a ballot in that day’s primary election. The group then sent a first-class letter to the listed address for all 63,246 individuals, 705 of which were returned as undeliverable by the U.S. Postal Service. After Nov. 6, the Fiscal Alliance once again requested a list of all voters in those communities and found 513 of those 705 had cast ballots in the general election as well.

Leaders of the nonprofit group say the 705 undeliverable letters,125 of which came back indicating that mail forwarding set up by the resident had expired, show that the state’s election system may be compromised. They asked Galvin to launch an investigation into the discrepancies.

“Without a doubt, it’s tainted,” said Paul Craney, spokesman for the Fiscal Alliance. “If it’s a close election” -- he pointed to the 3rd Congressional District Democratic primary, where Lori Trahan topped Dan Koh by only 145 votes -- “this leaves you scratching your head saying, ‘What happened here?’”

However, three experts interviewed by The Sun who have studied the topic said the Fiscal Alliance’s approach raised red flags. With 705 first-class letters flagged out of 63,246 sent, the undeliverable rate is about 1.1 percent, which could have several explanations.

“I see no reason to be concerned,” said Tufts University professor Eitan Hersh, who studies election rules and voter behavior. “I think to go from a 1 percent undeliverable mail rate to asserting concerns about election integrity is really irresponsible. It would be irresponsibly sowing doubt into the election system.”

The simplest possible reason, Hersh said, for the discrepancies could be human error: voter registration forms are often filled out by hand and then manually typed into a database, and typos or mistakes on the names or addresses could render mail undeliverable, the experts said.

Another plausible explanation is that residents may have moved residence but not updated where they are registered to vote. About 11 percent of Americans move in a given year, according to 2016 Census figures, and those rates are often higher among younger and more diverse populations.

It is legal to cast a ballot based on a previous address -- for six months after moving to a new city, or, under federal law, with no time constraint after moving within the same city -- and workers typically take down the new address information at the polling place on Election Day.

Justin Levitt, a law professor and associate dean for research at Loyola Law School, cited a 2008 case he helped litigate in Montana as an example. In that instance, local groups challenged the registration of about 6,000 voters, including Kevin Furey, an Army Reserve officer. Furey was deploying to Iraq and had asked the post office to forward his mail from his home in Helena to his mother’s address in Missoula.

Legally, Furey was still eligible to vote registered at the Helena address even if his mail was not deliverable there during his deployment. A lawsuit brought by the Montana Democratic Party ended the challenge to Furey’s registration.

“Reliance on this data is in some way an accepted first clue for a responsible investigation, but you would never say you topped the case based on that information alone,” Levitt said. “What (the Fiscal Alliance) has found merits further investigation, but speaking, not screaming. It’s the sort of ‘I’ll look into that’ level rather than the five-alarm fire level.”

Experts interviewed also raised questions about how the Fiscal Alliance approached the project. The group sent letters to everyone who cast ballots in eight Massachusetts cities, four of which -- Lowell, Lawrence, Methuen and Haverhill -- are in the 3rd District, where the Fiscal Alliance’s founder, Rick Green, just ran as the Republican nominee. In each of the eight cities except Milford and Franklin, people of color make up 30 percent or more of the population.

“This seems to dovetail with efforts of other groups who believe falsely that in-person voter fraud is widespread and also believe falsely that the best way to address fraudulent voting at all is to crack down on in-person voting,” said UMass Lowell political science professor John Cluverius. “I think this effort is not about voter integrity, it’s about the integrity of voters who disagree with the Mass. Fiscal Alliance.”

Historically, minority groups have been more susceptible than white voters to targeted campaigns of voter suppression under the guise of greater ballot security. The Fiscal Alliance’s letter and public press release stop short of suggesting outright changes to voter registrations, but Levitt said the language used -- that the election was “taint(ed)” -- sends a clear hint.

“They did not actually say the secretary of state should throw these people off of the rolls,” Levitt said. “They called for an investigation. But the clear implication is they think they flagged something wrong here when they might not have flagged something wrong at all.”

Craney said the Fiscal Alliance chose the eight cities for a variety of reasons. If the group had enough funding, they would have sent letters to all 351 communities in the state, but they settled on the group after a staff discussion. He said the nature of the 3rd District election -- with a 10-way Democratic primary -- played more of a role in choosing four cities in that region than Green’s candidacy, and he described criticism that the group had targeted minority communities as “a bunch of nonsense.”

“I’m half Mexican, my mother came from Mexico,” Craney said. “That’s nothing more than trying to confuse the facts. Those are just baseless charges. People that are voting illegally, hypothetically, it doesn’t matter where they’re voting illegally. That’s a problem for voters that are voting illegally.”

The group specifically called out Beej Das, who ran in the 3rd District Democratic primary. Das and three other individuals were registered to vote at his Lowell address and cast ballots in the primary, Craney said. Two of those individuals then allegedly voted in the general election from a North Andover address, and the Fiscal Alliance’s letter to the Lowell address came back as undeliverable.

Craney said the group did not contact Das or seek a possible explanation before mentioning him by name in their press release. Das did not return calls from The Sun.

“It’s hard to read that and not think they want you to believe that Mr. Das had done something wrong,” Levitt said. “They didn’t say it, but I think objectively it’s hard not to draw that conclusion from the letter when that conclusion may not be warranted.”

Despite the Fiscal Alliance’s efforts, the secretary of state’s office appears not to view the allegations as serious or concerning. At a pre-election press conference in November, Galvin described the fiscally conservative group’s as “obvious political propaganda by a political organization.”

Galvin’s office did not make him available for an interview with The Sun. Spokesperson Deb O’Malley said in an email that she “do(es) not believe (Galvin) has anything more to add beyond what he has said previously” and cited the legal right that voters have to use old addresses. She also said cities and towns have completed post-election list maintenance and will be updating voter lists based on new street listings in the coming months.

O’Malley did not respond to a follow-up email asking whether Galvin would launch an investigation following the Fiscal Alliance’s request.

Craney said he also contacted the office of U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling and that he received more of a response. Lelling’s office did not respond to an inquiry from The Sun seeking additional information.

“Any day, Galvin could write back and say, ‘I want to work with you guys,’” Craney said. “But I’m not holding my breath on that.”

Long-term, experts said even if the numbers cited by the Fiscal Alliance warrant inquiry or response from state officials, such a process should be approached responsibly to avoid stepping on voter rights, particularly in an era when the president makes claims about widespread voter fraud for which there is no evidence.

“The fact that it was pursued by an organization founded by a candidate for office, the fact that the other individual named was a candidate for the same office -- even though they have not accused anyone of fraud, the tone is not the tone of neutral scientific research or of nonpartisan evaluation,” Levitt said. “It’s a tone of accusation. That is what starts to raise flags for me and what moves it close to a very uncomfortable line, farther away from helpful citizen participation and activity.”

Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.

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