The district attorney in Hampden County is investigating whether a Republican candidate for state representative orchestrated an illegal scheme to cast absentee ballots on behalf of hundreds of voters in hope of winning a primary election.
State election officials were tipped off to the potential voter fraud when a suspiciously large number of residents of the Springfield suburb of East Longmeadow suddenly changed party registration from Democrat to independent, making them eligible to vote in the upcoming Republican primary.
When contacted, several of the voters said they had not changed party affiliations, raising concern that someone had switched their party in an attempt to cast fraudulent absentee ballots on their behalf.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who referred the case to District Attorney Mark G. Mastroianni for possible criminal prosecution, said the alleged scheme is extremely unusual in Massachusetts and could lead to jail time for anyone involved.
“It’s very serious,” said Galvin, who has been conducting his own investigation since early this month. “It’s like stealing a person’s identity to steal money from them, but it’s worse. You’re trying to steal an election.”
The criminal investigation is focusing on Republican candidate Enrique John Villamaino III, an East Longmeadow selectman who narrowly lost a primary bid for the same legislative seat in 2010, according to several people with direct knowledge. He is facing a rematch with Marie Angelides, a Longmeadow selectwoman who beat him in 2010 before losing in the general election to Democrat Brian M. Ashe, now the incumbent.
A friend of Villamaino’s who works in the East Longmeadow town clerk’s office is suspected of having changed the registrations in the office computers after work hours, according to one investigator who asked not to be named because the investigation is confidential.
Villamaino, who works for the MBTA in Boston as a $65,000-a-year contract administration assistant, could not be reached for comment.
Angelides detected the possible fraud while gathering information from the town clerk’s office about Republicans who requested absentee ballots for the Sept. 6 primary. When campaign workers began calling the voters, they discovered that the residents had not requested absentee ballots and were not even Republicans.
The Angelides campaign workers had expected about 50 requests for Republican absentee ballots, but they found about 450 requests, according to Spencer H. Kimball, Angelides’s attorney. The absentee ballot requests were not scattered either, but were concentrated on certain streets and in certain neighborhoods. Also, many of the voters were age 60 or older.
Kimball, who specializes in campaign law, said he at first considered “that maybe someone had done a really good get-out-the-vote job, but I had never seen such a thing at this level.”
“We recognized there may be a problem,” he said since some of those listed as requesting Republican absentee ballots were “hard-core Democrats, including members of the Town Democratic Committee and a retired judge.”
At that point, Kimball contacted Secretary of State Galvin’s office. “Something was really wrong,” he said.
On Aug. 3, Galvin’s office notified East Longmeadow’s town clerk, Thomas Florence, that he had opened an investigation, calling it a matter of “urgent circumstance.”
The letter from Galvin’s office said that the inquiry “relates to the party registration changes of a large number of registered voters that were allegedly made without the voter’s request, authorization, or approval.
“It has been alleged that official election records of registered voters were improperly altered and changed without authority and in violation of law,” the letter said.
The letter also instructs Florence to “not allow any records, either on paper or electronic, to be altered, deleted, removed, or destroyed.”
“Additionally, please secure all materials and computers that relate to or are used in connection with voter registration activities,” the letter said.
One East Longmeadow selectman called the allegations of ballot tampering stunning in the sleepy western suburb of about 15,000.
“This is all a great surprise to us,” said James Driscoll, 45, a lifelong resident and longtime selectman. “We’re a little town and this is like Chicago in the 1960 presidential election. Voter corruption? That’s just not something that happens in a town like this. But there’s a serious investigation into exactly that going on right now.
“It’s like a joke,” he said. “It’s bizarre. But thank God it’s not a widespread town problem.”
Violations of state voting laws carry potential penalties of up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Mastroianni did not return calls seeking comment on his investigation.Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sean P. Murphy can be reached at email@example.com.