Virginia's legendary "Fighting Ninth," a congressional district that in the old days rivaled Chicago for election-year chicanery, is reliving that reputation this year, as once again reports come down from the mountains about quirks during the Nov. 2 voting.
This time, Republicans are ready to take their charges to court, accusing election workers of lax and, in some cases, criminal behavior. It is the GOP's distant hope that "inconsistencies" in the results could overturn a congressional election that Democratic challenger Frederick C. Boucher claimed he won two weeks ago but which William C. Wampler, a veteran Republican congressman, has yet to concede. A recount of the returns is expected later this month.
The Democrat's margin of victory -- unofficial until the state Board of Elections certifies the results Monday -- was 1,138 votes. That is only slightly more than the 999-vote margin by which Wampler lost once before, 28 years ago. Wampler, known affectionately during his nine terms in office as the "Bald Eagle of the Cumberlands," never did concede that year and has maintained to this day that the 1954 election was stolen from him.
This time, hearing a familiar refrain from Virginia's southwest corner, the Republican National Committee has deployed four staff members and marshaled a team of lawyers to collect affidavits about election day transgressions. So far, they are investigating between 20 and 30 cases of apparent irregularities and yesterday posted a $5,000 reward for any new information on what they say is a pattern of voting fraud.
"We're looking at absentee ballots, potential machine tampering, areas of intimidation. We're looking at vote buying," said John Stevens, the RNC's regional campaign coordinator who has taken up temporary residence in Bristol, a city perched on the Tennessee border. "You name it and those kinds of infractions of one form or another have apparently occurred."
Stevens, who is collecting evidence for the recount, is being helped by local Republicans, organized as the Task Force to Preserve Electoral Integrity, who plan to provide evidence of at least a dozen indictable cases to the U.S. attorney in Roanoke.
Democrats in the 9th, who have made similar charges in years when their candidates lost close elections, this year are accusing the Republicans of being poor losers. "These are purely, simply statements made by people in a frantic effort to make it appear there was something wrong with the vote of the people," said Democrat Edgar Bacon, a former state delegate from Lee County, "There is nothing wrong--except Wampler didn't get enough votes."
So far, the Republican charges have remained vague, prompting the district's Democratic chairman to tell them "to put up or shut up." But in several counties, local officials have reported discrepancies between the number of votes cast in the voting machines and the number of voters checked off at the poll books. Lee County Republican Chairman Gary Waddell, for instance, has reports of a man who walked from one voting booth into the other, voted twice and came out to brag about it.
"If it were just little technical things, that would be one thing, but the man who bragged about voting twice, that to me is a flagrant violation," Waddell said.
Republicans trace some of the irregularities in this year's election to the inexperience of Democratic officials who recently took charge of the local electoral boards. In Virginia, the majority on the local boards belongs to the party occupying the governor's office and last year, with Gov. Charles S. Robb's victory, Democrats resumed control of elections for the first time in 12 years.
"These are irregularities that for years didn't exist in Virginia because there were Republican governors in Virginia," said Stevens. "Now that the boards are under the control of a Democratic governor, these infractions started to occur again. It's a case of putting the fox back in charge of the hen house."
"It looks like they are back to their old ways," said Gordon Lindamood, Wampler's campaign manager.
The allegations this year are tame in comparison to the old days of the infamous "black satchel." The satchel -- attributed by Democrats to former Republican Rep. C. Briscoe Slemp and by Republicans to the state's once all-powerful Democratic machine -- was used to round up "absentee" ballots from voters who could be persuaded, by whatever means, to vote before election day.
The tradition, fed by fierce partisan loyalties in the region's coal fields and by bitter feuding between unions and the coal companies, helped give the 9th its popular nickname. Politicians in Lee County, the state's westernmost point, tell of how in 1939 police thwarted a conspiracy to take over a local election when they happened on man driving a car full of submachine guns to a rendezvous with a gang hired from Kentucky.
By the early 1970s, the 9th District had rolled up a long record of election fraud convictions, enough to finally spur reforms of election procedures. But the problems continued. In 1974, when Wampler won reelection by about 2,000 votes, there were enough questions raised--by Democrats in that case -- for the House Committee on House Administration to call notice to "irregularities, illegalities and a lack of uniformity" in the 9th's voting patterns.
That year, Wampler was seated in spite of the complaints. This year, Boucher, a 36-year-old state senator, is assuming he will be too. He has already met with the Democratic leadership in the House and, in between legal preparations for the recount, has begun to sift through some 300 resumes for his future congressional staff.