Ohio's top Democrat this morning chided Athens County Democratic Party Chair Susan Gwinn for allegedly running a campaign that promised $5 cash bonuses to Ohio University student Democrats for helping to get out the vote. Meanwhile, the county party's treasurer said he knew nothing about the program and doesn't approve of it.
In an unusually strongly worded statement, Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said, "The Ohio Democratic Party had no role in this stupid idea, and I urge Athens County Chairwoman Susan Gwinn to suspend the program immediately and not issue any payments that may have been planned. I call for a complete investigation and prosecution for any wrongdoing in this case."
On the need for an investigation, Redfern appears on the same page as Athens County Republican Party Chair Pete Couladis, who issued a release Monday night asking the county Board of Elections and county prosecutor to investigate an alleged offer by the College Democrats to pay people to vote. The state Repubican Party issued a news release Tuesday afternoon saying the same thing, and demanding that Gov. Ted Strickland condemn Gwinn for voter fraud and "offering cash for votes."
As the story developed overnight Monday, however, it became apparent that the get-out-the-vote financial inducements were for getting others to vote, rather than paying people directly. The former question is the apparent focus of an ongoing investigation Athens County Prosecutor C. David Warren, who earlier today said he's looking into whether it's illegal to pay canvassers to bring in other voters.
A representative for the College Democrats said Monday that an e-mail cited as evidence has been misconstrued, and that nobody intended to offer anyone money to vote. In a follow-up news release late Monday night, Chris Mullen, communication director for the College Democrats, seemed to lay the blame for the get-out-the-vote cash bonuses on the county party.
"The GOTV (get-out-the-vote) program that has triggered the false reports was an effort by the Athens County Democratic Party to compensate volunteers financially for their time spent canvassing," Mullen wrote. "This program was sponsored by the county Democratic Party, and was not originated by the College Democrats."
He added that the OU College Democrats have not raised or spent any money to pay volunteers. "To date in this election cycle, no member of the group has received a dime for his or her canvassing work," Mullen wrote. He said any questions about the program should be directed to Gwinn.
Gwinn could not be reached for comment Monday night or Tuesday morning. However, she told the Columbus Dispatch Tuesday that any plan to pay get-out-the-vote volunteers never went past the discussion stage. "The whole situation has been blown out of proportion," she told the Dispatch. "I have no idea why (Galan) wrote that e-mail. There's really nothing going on here." (Gwinn finally issued a statement to the media Tuesday afternoon, which basically repeated what she told the Dispatch - that neither she nor her party intended to offer money for votes, or ever paid anyone for votes.)
The county party's treasurer, Lenny Eliason, said Tuesday morning he had no knowledge of any of get-out-the-vote programs involving payments to canvassers until he heard about the e-mail from the College Democrats Monday night. He said no money for the effort was coming through the county party.
"There is no money that's been approved for any of that," said Eliason, who also serves as an Athens County commissioner. "The chair (Susan Gwinn) may have done that, but it hasn't gone through me."
Eliason said that he has never had any discussion with Gwinn about the get-out-the-vote effort, nor has paying anybody ever been discussed in a party meeting.
"I don't think it's a good idea to try to do that sort of thing," Eliason said. "It's inappropriate. It doesn't pass the smell test as far as I'm concerned. You can construe that e-mail however you want, but clearly that's not the right way to get people out to vote."
The controversy erupted after an e-mail from the College Democrats' vice president appeared online and was subsequently publicized in blogs and news Web sites, including www.athensnews.com. Sent to College Democrats by club VP Kellie Galan the Friday before Halloween, the e-mail urged club members to join in a march to the polls for early voting: "If you have not voted yet, please come on out and bring some friends in the same situation... Remember, if you bring a friend from 4th ward they are more than a friend, they're 5 bucks!"
The mention of the Fourth Ward is a reference to the only contested Athens City Council race on Tuesday. A Republican, Randy Morris, has been engaged in a bitter fight with Democratic City Council member Christine Fahl for the east-side council seat.
"If money was being paid or offered by the College Democrats to college students or anyone else to vote, this is a serious violation of Ohio's election laws," Athens County GOP Chair Pete Couladis said in his press release Monday night.
OU College Republicans President Suzi Hawk said earlier Monday that the e-mail makes it seem like the club is paying people to vote.
"I think it's highly unethical and illegal to do that," Hawk said.
The Ohio Revised Code's section on campaigns and elections strictly prohibits "advance, pay, or cause to be paid or procure or offer to procure money or other valuable thing to or for the use of another, with the intent that it or part thereof shall be used to induce such person to vote or to refrain from voting."
The language in that ORC section doesn't appear to proscribe paying canvassers for their get-out-the-vote efforts, but rather forbids payments to the voter himself for either voting or not voting.
Hawk said if the club was indeed paying people to vote, it should instead "find another way to entice the voters."
In an interview Monday afternoon, College Democrats VP Galan said the e-mail's meaning had been misconstrued. "We're not involved in any kind of voter fraud," Galan said.
Galan said the club was offering $5 to volunteers who were canvassing "“ doing such things as walking door-to-door and offering voters rides to the Board of Elections "“ for Election Day.
"The $5 is more of an incentive for volunteers," Galan said.
In an interview Monday, Mullen of the College Democrats said that allegations of the club committing voter fraud are "absolutely false."
He echoed Galan's statements, saying the club was "compensating volunteers for their time."
In his release later Monday night, Mullen went a step further, suggesting that such allegations amount to libel against the College Democrats. "Any implication that any member of our organization has been involved with paying voters is false, unfounded and potentially libelous, as it incorrectly asserts illegal activity on the part of the College Democrats," Mullen said. "These kinds of assertions, reported by the media, have no factual basis, and are based on statements misunderstood and taken out of context.
Hawk disagreed that the e-mail was misinterpreted. "The way the e-mail is worded is that they are paying people to vote," she said.
Mullen said the money being paid to volunteers was provided by the Athens County Democratic Party, even though party Treasurer Eliason said Tuesday that if that's happening, he doesn't know anything about it.
Hawk said she's not sure how the e-mail first surfaced but because the College Democrats used the university server to send the e-mail, it's in the public domain. The e-mail had been circulating on Facebook and Twitter throughout Monday, and Hawk said she was able to find the e-mail just by searching for it on Google.
Hawk said that a formal complaint has not yet been made to the Board of Elections but the club, along with the Athens County Republican Party, plans to push the issue.
Couladis said in an e-mailed news release that he contacted county Prosecutor Warren Monday about the College Democrats' e-mail. He said the county Republican Party could file a complaint with the Elections Commission in Columbus if more evidence of voter fraud is revealed.
Warren said Tuesday morning that his office "is still looking at the issue" to see whether anything illegal was done. Asked whether it's illegal to pay someone a bounty to bring someone else in to vote, Warren said that issue is being looked at. "This is still under investigation," he said.
Debbie Quivey, director of the county Board of Elections, said Tuesday morning that her office had referred the matter to Warren after consulting with the Ohio Secretary of State's office. Asked whether paying someone for bringing in others to vote is illegal, she said that's a legal question that she can't answer.
Gwinn is currently under indictment for alleged campaign finance irregularities. She faces two felony charges of theft in office and one of felony money-laundering, along with three related misdemeanors. She has denied any wrongdoing.
Party central committee members and elected office-holders have for the most part supported Gwinn, and declined to ask her to step aside while the charges are pending. Before now, they have insisted that she is innocent till proved guilty, and can still effectively lead the party. - Athens NEWS Editor Terry Smith and reporter David DeWitt contributed to this story