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Decision on Inglewood Voting Case Could Affect on State Election Law

September 20, 1987|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | Times Staff Writer

Judge Leon Savitch is expected to rule this week on a lawsuit seeking to invalidate Ervin (Tony) Thomas's election to the Inglewood City Council, a decision that is likely to have implications for state election law.

No one disputes that Thomas and chief ally Mayor Edward Vincent conducted an aggressive absentee vote drive that brought the June 16 runoff election into the living rooms and front yards of voters in the city's 4th City Council District. The question Savitch must decide is whether that effort crossed the line between tough campaigning and illegality.

Election law prohibits another person from hand-delivering absentee votes unless the voter is ill or disabled. At issue in the trial is whether an absentee vote can be mailed in to the city clerk by someone other than the voter. Workers for Thomas have acknowledged in testimony that they picked up and mailed in dozens of ballots from absentee voters.

Lawyers for Garland Hardeman, who filed the election challenge in Los Angeles Superior Court after Hardeman lost the June election to Thomas by 16 votes, are trying to prove that many absentee ballots for Thomas were illegally solicited or cast. Thomas received 86%, or 395, of the 459 absentee votes.

Testimony on Ballots

Witnesses so far have included Vincent, Thomas, City Clerk Hermanita Harris and more than 30 voters. Several witnesses have testified that Vincent, members of the mayor's family and other workers for Thomas punched absentee ballots for them during the June campaign or told them to sign the names of other family members to ballots.

Election law generally prohibits punching or signing someone else's ballot unless they are disabled.

Some witnesses testified that they were unfamiliar with the candidates and were not prepared to vote but were pressured into doing so by Thomas workers, who had brought absentee ballot applications to their homes and later returned to collect the ballots.

District resident Nancy Armstrong testified that Vincent came to her house several weeks after the mayor's daughter, Dawn Vincent, had brought her an absentee ballot application. Armstrong said Vincent punched her ballot for her despite the fact that she said she knew nothing about the candidates.

"He said Ervin Thomas was good. He said, 'He's a good guy, we've been friends for years,' " Nancy Armstrong said. "I said, 'If you say he's good, punch it.' He sat down and punched it."

Although she did not protest, Armstrong said she felt that Vincent "took my rights away from me."

Armstrong's daughter Pamela testified that the mayor returned later that week and punched her ballot as well, taking both ballots with him.

District 4 resident Irish Smith testified that a "white lady" (the district is predominantly black) came to her home and punched ballots for her and her daughter, who was asleep in the next room. Smith said she signed her daughter's ballot at the urging of the woman, whom Smith said she believed to be a Thomas supporter.

Hardeman's lawyer, Mark Borenstein, did not question Vincent on the testimony involving him and other campaign workers, saying afterward that the mayor would merely have denied wrongdoing as he has in the past.

City Atty. Howard Rosten, who is representing the city and City Clerk Harris in the case, disagreed with Borenstein's claim that the testimony has revealed coercion, intimidation and invasion of voters' secrecy.

"I see absolutely no evidence of coercion or conspiracy," Rosten said in an interview. "What I do find is what you would find in any election: hundreds of different kinds of technical irregularities, many unimportant and a few that are important. I didn't see very many cases where people didn't know what they were doing when they voted. They did what they intended to do."

Rosten said testimony of witnesses has at most revealed two potentially illegal votes cast for Thomas, far short of the 17 that Borenstein is trying to eliminate.

Borenstein, a lawyer for the Los Angeles firm of Tuttle & Taylor who is representing Hardeman free of charge, has pursued several other strategies in his battle to have Hardeman declared the election winner. Chief among them is the charge that 15 absentee votes were delivered to the city clerk's office in violation of election law that forbids anyone other than the voter from hand-delivering absentee ballots unless the voter is sick or disabled.

Harris and members of her staff testified that they were unaware that any absentee votes were accepted from someone other than the voter.

But Borenstein cited 13 ballots with official time markings indicating that they arrived simultaneously, without postage, at the city clerk's office on Election Day. He said they must have been hand-delivered by a third party.

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