Monday’s announcement by state and federal investigators that Lincoln County Sheriff Jerry Bowman and County Clerk Donald Whitten are pleading guilty to charges related to fixing elections could easily be met with a shake of the head and a cynical chuckle.
Vote fraud in Lincoln County… so what else is new?
And it would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic.
Bowman, Whitten and an unidentified third person (believed to be Lincoln County Commissioner Thomas Ramey, Jr.) conspired to generate votes for themselves in the May 2010 Democratic Primary Election through the absentee voting process.
They visited voters, helped them fill out absentee applications–even though the voters didn’t qualify for them—then told them who to vote for. In at least six cases, Bowman marked the ballot for the voter.
The inordinately high number of absentee ballots aroused suspicion, and eventually Bowman and Whitten were brought to justice. The investigation continues and others could still be charged.
This is hardly the first time a Lincoln County politician has been in trouble with the law for vote fraud.
Back in 2005, Lincoln County Assessor Jerry Weaver and Circuit Clerk Greg Stowers pleaded guilty to fixing elections. They both went to prison. Amazingly, Weaver was rehired in the assessor’s office after he was released and is now a candidate for sheriff in this year’s election.
Looking in from the outside, it’s hard to imagine how Lincoln County remains stuck in the bad old days of West Virginia’s corrupt politics. Current Lincoln County Commissioner Dr. Charles Vance, who spoke out about the absentee ballot scandal when it broke two years ago, says the old habits are hard to break.
“We’ve lived this way ever since we can remember,” Vance told me on Metronews Talkline Monday.
U.S. Senator John McCain, in a foreword to Allen Loughry’s book about political corruption in West Virginia (Don’t Buy Another Vote, I Won’t Pay for a Landslide) said the election villains are not as flagrant as they used to be, so they are harder to identify.
“They do not lurk in the dark, dressed in black. They can be our neighbors, friends and coworkers,” McCain wrote. “They are not necessarily bad people, but rather people who have been held to low standards for a very long time.”
“They are merely playing the game that has evolved over years of transgressions going unchecked,” McCain said.
That’s part of the problem. These Lincoln County characters see the political process as a game… a game where they control the outcome for their own benefit. The losers are the people of Lincoln County who are disillusioned because they know their local politics are corrupt.
Commissioner Vance says he hopes this latest round of charges will be the beginning of the end of election shenanigans. “I think this sends a really strong message that everybody plays by the same rules,” Vance said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office have echoed the same sentiments.
Stowers and Weaver went to jail for their violations. Bowman and Whitten are losing their positions and may well go to prison. Others suspected of being involved in the latest election fraud could still be charged.
You would think that eventually the message will be clear.
As John McCain said, “We may never have a perfect government… but we should never stop striving for one.”