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DA probes special election amid reports of 'rampant illegalities'

Democrats declared winner, but GOP, Green Party demand investigations.

Arguments and shoving matches at polling places. Election board officials berating voters they disagreed with and even tricking them into casting the wrong vote. Voters who supported certain candidates being denied entry to their polling place.

It may sound like a third-world country. But all those things allegedly happened in Philadelphia, during the special election for Pennsylvania state representative earlier this week.

Democrat Emilio Vazquez has been declared the winner of Tuesday's special election. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office announced it had launched a formal investigation into theelection, which was for state representative of the 197th District.

The district attorney's office is asking witnesses to any misconduct to come forward.

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"The Task Force received approximately 50 calls to its hotline and responded to several dozen allegations of illegal activity at polling places across the the 197th," the DA's office said in a statement."Some of the issues the Task Force is investigating include the use and placement of candidate write-in stamps, electioneering inside the polling place, illegal voter assistance, and individuals writing on posted sample ballots."

Vazquez, an auditor at the Philadelphia Parking Authority, was declared the victor aftermore than 2,000 write-in votes were counted Friday.

But opponents have three days to file challenges before the results become official in this unusual election, which had only one candidate, a Republican, on the ballot.

Green Party candidate Cheri Honkala, who also ran a write-in campaign, is suing in federal court for a new election on the basis of widespread reports of electioneering.

"This election has sickened me and I am stunned at the level of allegations of fraud and corruption," wrote Samuel Stretton, Honkala's attorney, in a letter sent to the Philadelphia City Commissioners. "The Democratic Party in Philadelphia County has to change."

Among the dozens of allegations are multiple reports that judges of elections, who supervise voting in each polling place, handed out stamps with Vazquez's name to voters.

Honkala's campaign also claims some of the write-in votes may have been mishandled. They provided a photograph apparently depicting a box with paper votes being carried to Vazquez's victory party.

The state GOP has called on the state Attorney General's Office to investigate the election. Republican candidate Lucinda Little was the only candidate on the ballot and received some 200 of the votes in the district.

"Various volunteers, party people, reporters had made allegations of rampant illegalities at the polling places," said state Rep. John Taylor at a Harrisburg news conference about the election. "Any candidate has the right to have a fair election."

Vazquez could not be reached for comment. The city's Democratic Party chair, Congressman Bob Brady, could not be reached immediately for comment. Mayor Jim Kenney, a Democrat, cannot comment on a pending investigation, his spokeswoman said.

City Council President Darrell Clarke, a Democrat, did visit some polling places on March 21, but did not observe any illegal activity, a spokeswoman said.

"He was impressed by the voter turnout, but did not personally witness anything illegal or suspicious," said spokeswoman Jane Roh, who declined to comment on the DA's investigation.

Little was the only candidate on the ballot after a series of errors by Democrats.

The original Democratic candidate was booted from the ballot after the GOP sued over the fact that he did not reside in the district, and Democrats were refused a chance to replace that candidate with Vazquez.

Honkala's bid for a place on the ballot was also denied due to problems with her paperwork. Thus, both she, Vazquez, and a number of other candidates ran write-in campaigns.

The special election was held to replace Democratic state Rep. Leslia Acosta, who did not tell anyone she was convicted of a felony until after winning reelection in November, then stepped down. Acosta's predecessor, Democrat JP Miranda, also left office while facing criminal charges to which he later pleaded guilty.

The DA's office is asking the public tosend anyvideo, photographic, or eyewitness accounts of fraud at the polls tojustice@phila.gov or to call the Task Force at 215-686-8724.

First Assistant District Attorney Kathleen Martin is leading the investigation, afterDA Seth Williams pleaded not guilty Wednesday to a 23-count federal indictment on corruption charges.

 
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