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Voters in Bell tell of possible fraud

August 5, 2010 |  5:55 pm

As Los Angeles prosecutors investigate potential voter fraud in Bell, several residents have told The Times that city officials pressed them to fill out absentee ballots in a way that election experts say may have violated state law.

Four voters said city officials walked door-to-door encouraging them to fill out absentee ballots. In one case, a woman said she signed papers she believed were election paperwork. She never filed an absentee ballot. But when she went to the polls on election day, records showed that she had voted absentee.

Two other voters said that two council members came to their homes urging them to fill out absentee ballots. The voters did — and a few weeks later the council members collected the ballots, saying that they would personally submit them, according to the voters.

The accounts describe conduct that would violate California election laws, which have strict rules about how absentee ballots are handled. The son of one of the voters interviewed said he and his mother had reported the incident to Los Angeles County prosecutors.

Los Angeles attorney Fred Woocher, an expert on California election law, said absentee voters must mail the ballot — or personally bring it to the registrar's office or their polling place.

The state election code says voters must return absentee ballots themselves unless they are disabled or ill, in which case only family members or people living in the same household may return them.

How absentee ballots are handled has been an issue in several Southern California elections in recent years, leading in at least one case to the overturning of election results and in other cases to votes being thrown out.

The potential for fraud in Bell is heightened because of how few people vote in the working-class, immigrant town of 40,000. Fewer than 400 voters cast ballots in a 2005 special election that cleared the way for City Council members to significantly increase their salaries, for example. More than half were absentee ballots. The high salaries paid to top administrators — including nearly $800,000 for the former city manager — have sparked widespread outrage.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office has not offered details of its election investigation, but Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said last week that the probe is centering on absentee ballots.

Read the full story here.

--Paloma Esquivel, Jeff Gottlieb and Sam Quinones