• Mass. Sec. Galvin defends use of absentee ballots


    BOSTON (AP) - The state's top election official says he's asking federal prosecutors for more information about a lawmaker who agreed to plead guilty to casting invalid absentee ballots but he's reluctant to recommend tightening access to the ballots.

    State Secretary William Galvin says he wants more details about the case of Rep. Stephen Smith before deciding if any other steps needs to be taken. Galvin said he's most interested in finding out who might have helped Smith.

    "I've very interested in finding out if there was any kind of electoral misconduct," Galvin said. "If I believe there is any involvement of any election officials, I'm going to take action."

    Investigators from U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz's office have said Smith, a Democrat from Everett, submitted fraudulent absentee ballot applications for voters who were ineligible or unaware the ballots were being requested in 2009 and 2010.

    "Smith was able to obtain many of the official absentee ballots and cause them to be delivered to the ineligible voters, who would then cast votes despite lacking any eligibility to do so, or Smith would cast the absentee ballots himself," prosecutors said in court papers.

    Investigators said in the cases of unaware voters, one or more government officials helped Smith in tracking and/or intercepting the absentee ballots before their delivery to the voters. In those cases, they said, the absentee ballots "were cast for the unaware voters."

    Smith, 57, has agreed to resign and not seek elected office for five years. A call to his lawyer was not immediately returned Thursday.

    Smith isn't the only elected official charged with tampering with absentee ballots this year.

    In October, former East Longmeadow selectman Enrico "Jack" Villamaino pleaded not guilty to 12 voter fraud-related counts after prosecutors accused him of trying to rig absentee ballots during an unsuccessful Republican primary campaign for the Legislature.

    Investigators said Villamaino took absentee ballot applications from the East Longmeadow clerk's office and cast some of them after altering the voter registrations of some Democrats to independent.

    Election officials from Galvin's office supervised the East Longmeadow clerk's office before the Sept. 6 primary to ensure the voter registrations and absentee ballot requests were valid.

    Galvin, a Democrat, took the action after what he said was an influx of forged absentee ballot requests and hundreds of people whose voter affiliations were changed from Democrat to Republican in town voting rolls without their permission.

    Despite the two recent cases, Galvin said he'd be reluctant to clamp down too tightly on access to absentee ballots, saying that could create an added burden for voters including those serving in the military.

    "What I wouldn't want to do is to make it harder," he said. "Would we want someone in Afghanistan to have to go looking for a notary public?"

    By law Massachusetts voters can use absentee ballots if they plan to be away from their cities or towns on Election Day, have physical disabilities that prevent their voting at polling locations or cannot vote at the polls due to religious beliefs.

    Voter can apply in writing at their local clerk's offices to have absentee ballots mailed to them. The requests also can be downloaded from the Internet and mailed in.

    Once a ballot is completed, the voter can mail it back to election officials.

    Critics say the increased use of absentee ballots nationwide also increases the potential for fraud, mistakes or lost ballots.

    Despite concerns, the use of absentee ballots is growing. The mail-in ballots accounted for barely 5 percent of the total vote nationwide 40 years ago compared to 16 percent in the 2008 election.

    Next Up: