PROVIDENCE — Allegations of voter fraud are nothing new in a city where a political boss once described an honest voter as one who stays bought, the State Police strip-searched a woman suspected of hiding stolen mail ballots, and the state Board of Elections sits across from a graveyard.
But now, as President Obama prepares to appear with Democrats in Providence on Halloween and felonious ex-mayor Buddy Cianci seeks to reclaim City Hall running as an independent, the authorities are once again looking into allegations of mail ballot fraud.
The Rhode Island State Police are investigating whether two off-duty Providence police officers working for Cianci’s campaign crossed the line last week while collecting mail ballots at a homeless shelter.
Detectives are also looking into a video, shot by a Cianci volunteer Saturday night, purporting to show a state representative who supports Cianci’s opponent, Democrat Jorge Elorza, carrying a mail ballot outside an apartment complex for seniors in the city’s West End.
All this might have been just more fodder for coffee hour at Fox Point Manor, a senior high-rise tucked into Providence’s old Portuguese neighborhood at the head of Narragansett Bay, had it not been for the two mysterious men who appeared there last week. They collected mail ballots, and now they are also under investigation, the State Police told the Globe Wednesday.
A 79-year-old resident, Celeste Neves, says the men took her blank mail ballot last week, without giving her a chance to fill it out. They didn’t say for whom they worked.
“They said they gonna teach me to vote, then they do something with the paper and leave,” Neves told the Globe.
The men left with her ballot and tried unsuccessfully to collect a mail ballot from her neighbor, who has dementia, said Neves. The neighbor’s husband confirmed that his wife has dementia, and was in no condition to request the ballot that she received in the mail.
Another resident, Maria Simoes, 78, says that the men tried to collect her mail ballot, but she refused.
“He said, ‘I’ll help you fill out the paper,’ ” recalled Simoes. “I was scared, so I tell them I throw the papers away.”
Both women complained to their resident services coordinator, who called state and city elections officials, who alerted the State Police.
“We are looking at it,” said Colonel Steven G. O’Donnell, State Police superintendent.
Detectives interviewed Neves and Simoes. Both women pointed out the two men on building surveillance videos. On Wednesday, detectives visited the state elections office, across the street from the North Burial Ground, and took Neves’ and Simoes’ mail ballot applications, said Robert Kando, the election board’s executive director.
While it’s legal in Rhode Island for campaign workers to witness someone filling out a mail ballot and to deliver sealed mail ballots to the state, it is a felony to possess or fill out someone else’s mail ballot.
“That would be a problem,” Kando said. “You’re stealing someone’s vote and interfering with an election.”
It wouldn’t be the first time in Providence.
In a 1904 expose of Rhode Island, muckraker Lincoln Steffens spoke to a lieutenant of Republican party chief Boss Brayton, who complained about citizens paid to vote one way but voting the other for a little extra cash.
“An honest voter,” he sniffed, “is one who stays bought.”
Cianci, whose two felony convictions forced him from office in 1984 and 2002, was aided in his early campaigns by a South Side councilman, the late Lloyd Griffin, a maestro of mail ballots who was nicknamed “Satchel” for dumping a satchel full of ballots on the mayor’s desk.
“It was well known in Providence that Lloyd had a bit of trouble differentiating between an absentee voter and a fictitious vote,” Cianci wrote in his 2011 memoir.
Griffin’s people “were so nice that they would actually help people fill out their ballots” — and if a voter didn’t want to vote for Cianci, Griffin’s people “would happily put an ‘X’ right next to his name,” according to the memoir, “Politics and Pasta.”
Cianci’s 1,074-vote win in 1982 was tainted by mail ballot abuses, a Providence Journal-Bulletin investigation concluded; a Cianci campaign worker was indicted for mail ballot fraud. Shortly before the election, shotgun-wielding state troopers raided Griffin’s headquarters and strip-searched a woman accused of snatching two mail ballots from a rival candidate.
Cianci has had an aggressive mail ballot effort this year. The city has certified just over 3,000 ballots.
Last week, the same day the two men visited Fox Point Manor, two off-duty Providence police officers walked into Crossroads Rhode Island, a homeless shelter across the street from Cianci’s campaign headquarters, according to State Police. Resident Francis McKenna told The Providence Journal that one insisted McKenna turn over his blank mail ballot, but he refused.
On Sunday, State Police said they were also investigating a cellphone video shot by a Cianci volunteer who accuses Representative Scott Slater of carrying an unsealed mail ballot. Slater says a constituent asked him to notarize her ballot.
On Monday — the same day the video surfaced publicly — President Obama endorsed Elorza, perhaps the first time a president has weighed in on a Providence mayor’s race. Obama will deliver a speech on the economy here Friday, appearing with gubernatorial candidate Gina Raimondo and Elorza.
On Monday evening, Neves sat at her kitchen table, wringing her hands.
“This is crazy,” she said. “I like to go to the school on Election Day with my daughter and vote. It makes me happy. Now, I think I already vote.”Mike Stanton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org