How Kentucky Does Election Fraud: Vote Buying

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Voting booths

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Voting booths

This election season, we are tracking reports of voting irregularities across Kentucky. Within the last month, the state’s attorney general has received just two complaints of vote buying and selling.

Will there be more come Election Day? If history is any guide, it’s a good bet.

This summer, reporter R.G. Dunlop examined Kentucky’s sordid past with vote buying, an electoral sham that is still very much alive in the commonwealth. We are republishing his Aug. 19 piece this week as part of our Electionland coverage with ProPublica.

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Three weeks before primary election day in 1987, the fixer crammed cases of beer into the back of his car and threw a party behind his house in eastern Kentucky. His purpose: to lock up the votes of the 30 or so men and women who attended.

Another day, the fixer went looking for a hunting and fishing crony who could be counted on to haul voters to the polls. To seal the deal, the fixer stuck a $50 bill into his pal’s shirt pocket.

As a reporter for The Courier-Journal newspaper, I shadowed the fixer for a month leading up to the May 1987 primary. He asked that I keep his actual identity confidential.

He called himself “the mailman.”

“I deliver,” he explained.

While the practice may seem antiquated, vote buying is still very much alive in Kentucky. And the tactics used by the mailman and his many cohorts to carry precincts by whatever means necessary are much the same. Now, as then, money rules.

Just last week, a federal court jury found three people guilty of conspiring to buy votes in Magoffin County on behalf of candidates for local offices. Witnesses testified that they were paid $50 to vote for a particular slate of candidates in 2014.

A state court judge had already vacated the county’s 2014 judge-executive election after concluding that rampant corruption made it impossible to determine who really won.

Vote buying also surfaced during the 2010 general election in Magoffin County. Randy Salyer, a member of the county board of elections, was convicted of paying voters $50 or more for their absentee ballots and was sentenced to 21 months in prison. Upon his release, Salyer was hired by the judge-executive whose election was overturned due to voting irregularities.

Magoffin County

Magoffin County

After Ferrell Adkins lost his bid for Magoffin County commonwealth’s attorney in 1987, he moved to Elizabethtown for a different career in law. But Adkins, who still has family in eastern Kentucky, doesn’t think much has changed since he left 29 years ago.

“It’s kind of ingrained in the local society,” Adkins said recently. “It’s almost become kind of a tradition. I wouldn’t say the majority thinks it’s ok to sell your vote, but there are people who think there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s kind of a commercial transaction.”

And occasional prosecutions don’t seem to do much if anything to deter the practice, Adkins said. “The vast majority don’t get caught.”

For much of Kentucky’s colorful and sometimes corrupt history, schemes have been perpetrated by local political operatives and others eager to trade cash for votes.

Public corruption in the eastern half of the state outpaces many more populous regions across the country, according to a U.S. Department of Justice study. During the past decade, the Eastern District of Kentucky ranked 17th among the 93 U.S. attorneys’ offices nationwide in total convictions for public corruption, including vote buying.

The district covers 67 counties in central and eastern Kentucky, including Franklin and Fayette.

Many of the districts with more convictions either encompassed entire states, including Arizona, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey, or major cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, the District of Columbia, Philadelphia and Cleveland.

There were nearly three times as many public corruption convictions (201) in the eastern part of Kentucky from 2005 through 2014 as there were in the western half of the state, which logged just 74. The entire state of Indiana tallied 175.

In 2012, election fraud was a family affair in the Floyd County community of Martin. Mayor Ruth Thomasine Robinson, her husband and his son all were convicted of vote buying in connection with her bid for re-election.

Robinson lost the election by three votes. She later was sentenced to 90 months in federal prison. At age 71, she is serving her sentence in Texas and scheduled for release in 2021.

Her husband, James “Red” Robinson, got 40 months in prison for vote buying. In addition, he was convicted in state court of terroristic threatening and menacing after he confronted the winning mayoral candidate and threatened to kill him before he could take office.

The Courier-Journal series, "Winning at Any Cost: How Money Poisons Kentucky's Elections," was a 1988 Pulitzer Prize finalist. The series is unavailable online.

The Courier-Journal series, “Winning at Any Cost: How Money Poisons Kentucky’s Elections,” was a 1988 Pulitzer Prize finalist. The series is unavailable online.

And then there was the long-running, almost mind-boggling scheme to pervert the electoral process in Clay County.

A former circuit judge and a former county school superintendent indicted? A rare occurrence, even in Kentucky. Co-defendants in a plot to fix elections over a period of years? Perhaps unprecedented.

In all, eight prominent Clay County politicians pleaded guilty in 2013 to participating in a racketeering conspiracy to gain control of the local board of elections and determine which candidates won and lost.

In Monroe County, near Bowling Green, 10 defendants were convicted of conspiring to buy votes in connection with the 2006 general election. One of them, Judge-Executive Wilbur Graves won, but was defeated for reelection four years later, while under indictment in the case.

In early 1987, fellow reporter Richard Whitt and I set out to unearth very similar vote-buying schemes.

The pickings were easy. And then, as now, some of the most fertile ground was in Magoffin County.

Whitt saw a man handing out a fistful of $5 and $10 bills near a polling place there. He saw “floaters” – those willing to sell their votes to the highest bidder – hanging around waiting for the price to go up. When Whitt stopped by, the buyers were only offering $10. Not enough.

Graft flourished even inside the Magoffin County courthouse, where election “officials” told residents how to cast their ballots and then handed out what appeared to be cash.

(Listen to R.G. Dunlop discuss this story on 89.3 WFPL News)

The vote buyer I tracked, the so-called “mailman,” was one of an untold number of in-the-trenches workers. They were, and are, mostly known only to the politicians who use them and pay them to carry precincts by whatever means necessary.

When I accompanied the mailman to his polling place, he was one of the first to vote. Then he handed out marked-up “sample” ballots to voters as they arrived. In reality, the ballots were already filled out, so all the voters had to do was deposit them in the box.

Sometimes the mailman would climb into voters’ cars for some private conversation. He denied buying any votes outright that day. But he admitted carrying a wad of cash, about $3,000, in $50 bills.

When the ballots were tallied, his choice for governor in the Democratic primary — Steve Beshear — had carried the precinct by a handful of votes. It was the only precinct Beshear won in the county. Beshear finished a distant third statewide.

Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at rdunlop@kycir.org or (502) 814.6533.