They can’t steal an election, can they?

The ongoing news story involving the apparently tainted Iran presidential election hits closer to home than you might think. The key difference being that the controversy over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 60 percent-plus victory spilled into the streets, while the controversy that still lingers in some circles in Waynesboro over the May 2008 city election is still largely a whisper campaign. 

I of course was caught up in the middle of the May 2008 city election as a candidate, and not a week passes where somebody doesn’t say something to me about how they think something untoward happened behind the scenes that made possible the surprising sweeping victories by Frank Lucente and Bruce Allen.

The writing had seemed to be on the wall for the centrist-progressive side to complete what had been a several-year-long march to assuming control of city politics. Lorie Smith and Nancy Dowdy had won in impressive fashion in the May 2006 city elections, Smith in particular impressing with her near-50 percent showing in a three-way race with sitting City Council member Reo Hatfield and former Councilman DuBose Egleston. Then came the support of the voters in the November 2007 referendums for funding for a new West End fire station, stormwater improvements and expansion at the Waynesboro Public Library that was tempered only by the defeats at the polls of referendum items for lighted baseball and softball fields and sidewalk improvements that one could probably justify given the price tag associated with those later two items.

The ’08 election process played out as one would expect given the progressive tide in Waynesboro. Somehow, some way, I even earned the endorsement of the conservative daily newspaper, The News Virginian, which praised my business-planning approach to getting the city moving forward.

Victory on Election Day seemed inevitable, which is why it was such a crushing blow to our supporters when we not only lost, but lost ba-a-a-ad, with Allen and Lucente getting more than 60 percent of the vote each and myself and fellow centrist-progressive candidate Jeremy Taylor scoring in the mid-20s.

The whispers about ballot-box shenanigans got to me in the first couple of weeks following the election, and given that my day job is that of journalist, I did my due diligence in beginning to check things out. Among the items that I uncovered in that process was a woefully incomplete campaign-finance report that had been filed by Allen that didn’t at first list campaign expenses related to robocalls made by a Republican firm in Richmond on his campaign’s behalf that was eventually later reported by the Allen campaign and the failure of a sponsor of a pre-election advertisement in the News Virginian to report the independent expenditure on behalf of Lucente and Allen to the local registrar’s office.

But that was it as far as significant findings were concerned – until an e-mail appeared in my in-box in early July that contained copies of e-mails exchanged between then-Waynesboro voter registrar Mary Alice Downs and then-Nelson County voter registrar Lisa Wooten that seemed to be evidence of collusion on the part of both women to engineer the appointment of Wooten to replace Downs upon her pending retirement in Waynesboro.

My subsequent investigation into the matter, which took on added steam when Wooten took over as the Waynesboro voter registrar in January, came to the conclusion that no laws had been violated in the apparent collusion, but even so, something still seemed a bit rotten about what had taken place. Downs in the exchange talked openly about trying to maneuver the Waynesboro Electoral Board to appoint Wooten as regisrar while securing for herself the appointment as the Republican representative on the board after her retirement, and in one statement declared as a motivation her interest in “keeping elections fair,” which one could easily read as an interest in doing anything but considering the backroom maneuvering that was taking place in the meantime.

That said, I look at the body of evidence here and see a whole lot of conjecture, and little else. It does pique my curiosity that Jeremy and I were in the mid-20s in May and Barack Obama was in the mid-40s and Mark Warner was just short of 60 percent six months later. The Obama number in particular would seem to be a floor for progressives in Waynesboro, and we were at about half that in the May election. It’s also significant to point to the margins for the approved November 2007 referendums, which were closer to what Warner scored in Waynesboro in November 2008.

The political analyst in me is chalking up the discrepancy not to shenanigans but to the differing beasts that are May and November elections. Turnout in May ’08 was about 25 percent of the city registered-voter population, while in November ’08 it was in the 70 percent range overall. Having worked the polls both Election Days, I can tell you that the typical May voter was, shall we say, a lot more senior than the typical November voter, and I can understand based just on that factor why that May voter would have a different set of interests than the November voter. Senior voters living on largely fixed incomes are going to be more likely to think bottom line first, and Lucente and Allen appealed to bottom-line-focused voters with their constant harping on how they felt the city has been spending too much money on schools and infrastructure improvements and economic development.

The younger voters, meanwhile, who have interest in the schools because their kids are in them and in infrastructure improvements and economic development that will improve quality of life for the long term of the next 25 to 50 years, took for granted that their interests would continue to be represented, perhaps lulled to complacency like a lot of people in my inner circle were by the inevitability of our success at the polls.

Plain and simple, they won, we lost, we have to work harder next time to make it so that the roles are reversed next time. That’s how I sleep at night, anyway.

Bringing this back to Iran, then, I wonder if it might not be the case that Ahmadinejad won the election by simply outpolling opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi in rural areas of Iran that would tend to be more conservative in their outlook than the urban areas where Mousavi is clearly more popular and where we’re seeing people take to the streets to protest what they think is a stolen election.

Or maybe the best way to steal an election is to make the margin of victory appear to be so overwhelming that the other side looks like so many whiners and crybabies for even suggesting that anything other than the official results should be the official results.

Which isn’t to say that I’m speaking from the experience of having endured such a thing in my own political meanderings. Just sayin’ …


– Column by Chris Graham

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