Mt. Vernon Register-News

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July 15, 2010

Election workers questioned in state's attorney trial

MT. VERNON — Testimony Wednesday in the Nicole Villani election contest trial was that a part-time election worker in the Jefferson County Clerk’s office changed absentee voter applications after a discovery recount, and election judges in Mt. Vernon Precinct 12 numbered ballots and applications — with one judge having her daughter sign her name to official documents.

Villani, a former candidate for the office of Jefferson County State’s Attorney, filed the lawsuit contesting the results of the Nov. 4, 2008, election in which she lost to Jefferson County State’s Attorney Jeff Bradley by 69 votes. The lawsuit names Bradley and Jefferson County Clerk Connie Simmons — in her official capacity as the election authority in the county — as respondents in the lawsuit. The lawsuit was filed after Villani petitioned for a discovery recount of nine precincts: Bald Hill, Elk Prairie, McClellan 2, Mt. Vernon 9, Mt. Vernon 10, Mt. Vernon 11, Mt. Vernon 12, Mt. Vernon 13 and Mt. Vernon 14. Also, Villani inspected ballot applications and voter affidavits for the precincts.

In the second day of testimony, Judy VonBurg, who has been employed in the clerk’s office as part-time election help, testified she worked during the Nov. 4, 2008, election to register voters and help early and absentee voters who came to the courthouse. After the election, VonBurg said she helped make copies of requested documents for the election contest.

Villani’s attorney, Morris Lane Harvey, questioned VonBurg about several absentee ballot applications in Mt. Vernon 12 Precinct in which some copies had voter information printed along the side and other copies had the information transferred to boxes at the top of the application with VonBurg’s initials.

“The information was there, but not in the appropriate place,” VonBurg testified. “I put it where it belonged ... and added my initials.”

VonBurg said while working along with other staff to copy the materials for Villani in the lawsuit, she became aware the applications had not been properly filled out. Under questioning by Bradley’s attorney, Bill Milner, VonBurg explained she did not change any of the information, but moved it to the appropriate box and included her initials for clarification.

“I didn’t think it was hurting anything, and I wanted to make sure it was done right,” VonBurg said of transferring the information. “I didn’t think it was a problem. ... I didn’t know it was wrong.”

Several hours of the day’s testimony was also spent on questions of witnesses about two sets of copies which were received by Villani — one of which had a mark in a box of the ballot application and an earlier copy of the same document that did not have the mark. A document examiner, Stephen McKasson, who now does private work after retiring from the Illinois State Police, said although he didn’t examine the original document or examine whether the type of ink used was consistent with other markings, he could determine the marks were made after the first copy. That led Harvey to call Simmons to the stand to discuss the security used in the storage of election materials.

Simmons said all election ballots, affidavits and materials are stored in a locked room and inside a vault in that room. The keys are located in a cash drawer in the clerk’s office, she said.

Mt. Vernon 12 Precinct Election Judge Bernestine Disroe also spent a lot of time on the witness stand, and testified that on several official documents which require a signature by an election judge, she asked her daughter, Cassandra, to sign her name. Cassandra Disroe was also an election judge in the precinct.

“I was right there when she signed it,” Bernestine Disroe said. “I gave her my permission to sign my name. ... I didn’t sign it. ... My daughter was sitting next to me and I told her to just put my name on there too.”

Documents in which Disroe said her daughter signed were the oath of office, the certificate of inspection of election materials and certification of votes cast. Disroe said she was unsure of some of the other signatures on items because her daughter’s “handwriting is so similar, it’s hard to tell if I signed it or Cassandra signed it.”

Disroe said she and the other election judges also signed the envelope containing spoiled ballots and verified five ballots were inside. However, when the envelope was opened, there were seven ballots inside ... with no one able to provide an explanation of where the extra ballots came from since the voter machine tallies were also certified with five spoiled ballots.

Disroe testified she handed out ballots to voters after they signed the application for ballot, and the judges in the precinct decided to number the applications as well as the ballots.

“A few years before this we had a miscount,” Disroe said. “It took us more than an hour and a half to find (the problem). We decided next time an election came around we would number them. ... Every half hour or so we would ask each other, ‘how many do you have?’ If she has 14 and I have 12, we’ve got a problem. ... If the numbers didn’t match, we got a problem and got to figure out what the problem is.”

Official totals from the voter machine at Mt. Vernon 12 indicated there were 250 regular ballots; 14 federal-only ballots for a total of 264 ballots cast. Certified results by the judges of the precinct also indicated there were 114 unused ballots and the five spoiled ballots. Under cross-examination, Simmons’ attorney, Jim Hanson, pointed out that numbers on applications could not correspond to the individual’s ballot because the types of ballots requested did not correspond with the actual ballots in many instances, some ballots did not have a number on them, and some applications had more than one number on them.

Hanson had Disroe pull the actual ballot application for several ballots and tell the court the number on it. Then, he would pull the corresponding numbered ballot and ask Disroe the type of ballot it should be. In several instances, the voter applicant asked for a federal-only ballot, while the ballot with the corresponding number was a full ballot which included local races as well as federal.

All witnesses have been called for Villani, with Harvey resting his case Wednesday afternoon. Testimony from respondents is expected to begin this morning in the case.

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