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Last Updated: Monday, 11 October, 2004, 11:32 GMT 12:32 UK
Campaign column: The price of a vote

By Tom Carver
BBC correspondent in Washington

"Kennedy didn't buy West Virginia. He rented it for the day."

John F Kennedy's 1961 inauguration
Rumours abound of Kennedy using influence to get elected
That's the boast of Claude "Big Daddy" Ellis, once one of the bosses of the Democratic machine in West Virginia.

At 77, sitting in his study in Logan, surrounded by photographs of him and JFK, he is happy to talk of the old days when things were as "loose as a goose".

He recalls how the Kennedy operatives flew in wads of cash by private plane to the state, which Mr Ellis then used to buy the votes.

The way he tells it, the main reason John F Kennedy beat Hubert Humphrey for the Democratic nomination in 1960 was that the Kennedy boys had more money to spread around.

On the wall of his study are several telegrams from Bobby - the president's brother - and Jack expressing their "appreciation" for his work.

Rare Republican victory

Today, West Virginia is still firmly in the grip of the Democratic Party.

West Virginia mine (Photo: EyeWire)
West Virginia is heavily industrialised and leans Democrat
Both of West Virginia's senators and the governor are Democrats. The state legislature has a Democratic majority.

The only exception is at the presidential level. Last time, it went Republican for the first time in 20 years.

The Democrats are determined to claw it back. The danger is - that given the state's long history of ballot corruption - they do it by foul means rather than fair.

In the state's deep coal-mining valleys and small towns full of old style barber shops and "gun and loan" stores, money still changes hands every election year.

According to several people I spoke to, the going rate for a vote these days is $15 or a pint of whisky.

"There's still folks in these parts that's get upset if they're not offered money for their vote," Big Daddy Ellis says.

Mr Ellis says his days of vote buying are long over.

He reluctantly stepped in to become Logan's mayor after the previous incumbent was caught up in a voting-buying scandal.

Conspiracy

Two months ago, Logan sheriff Big John Mendez pleaded guilty to conspiracy to buy votes.

They know exactly how the person voted so they know how to pay them
Detective Damon Slone
Logan's police chief and various court officials have also been removed from their posts.

One common trick is to pay volunteers $50 or $60 to drive people to the polls on Election Day.

This is a long-established and perfectly legitimate practice.

But in West Virginia, it's used to "deliver" the votes of that person's family.

The recipient drives his family to the polls, makes sure they vote the right slate and then goes home, his job done.

The crime is almost impossible to detect.

The only drawback is that you can't be totally sure that the family voted the way they promised.

Loosening law

However, thanks to a loosening of election law, you can now overcome that wrinkle.

Absentee voter places vote in an envelope
Some experts are concerned about influence on absentee voters
Across America, it is becoming much easier to vote by absentee ballot.

While everyone worries about the risks of mechanical failure among the new voting machines in Florida and elsewhere, some people think the much greater danger comes from the growing prevalence of absentee voting.

Twenty-six states now allow someone to vote in the privacy of their own home without any questions asked.

Damon Slone, a detective who spent 12 years investigating ballot fraud in West Virginia, told me that absentee voting is a dream come true for the vote-riggers.

"A party activist can come over to someone's house and either watch the person vote or vote for them. Then they know exactly how the person voted so they know how to pay them."

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