July 31, 2014 at 2:56 pm

Dearborn Heights to get elections monitor for August vote

Dearborn Heights will have a state elections monitor for next month’s election after claims of voter suppression and discrimination against Arab-Americans who requested absentee ballots, while the city clerk is alerting authorities to possible voter fraud involving the absentee ballots.

Dearborn Heights Mayor Daniel Paletko said Wednesday he requested that the secretary of state monitor Tuesday’s election.

“It should give comfort to the voters that we have some independent review,” he said.

A state Bureau of Elections staffer is expected in Dearborn Heights “to assist the City Clerk’s Office in case any questions or issues arise to ensure an orderly election,” spokesman Fred Woodhams said. “The staff person also may travel to other area communities if they are needed there.”

Meanwhile, City Clerk Walter Prusiewicz, who has faced accusations of preventing Arab-American voters from submitting absentee ballots, reported to the state attorney general and the Wayne County prosecutor this week what he described as “a potential case of voter fraud and campaign irregularities.”

He said about 250 absentee ballot applications were dropped off at his office in two batches but did not specify when. Both batches were from men who appeared associated with the campaign of state Rep. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, Prusiewicz said. Knezek is running for the 5th Senate District seat in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

“When I began the process of issuing the ballots, I noticed that none of them were signed by the person who dropped them off as required by law,” Prusiewicz wrote in the letter dated Monday. “I also noted that many of the headings and dates were written in the same handwriting, and different than that of the voter.”

Prusiewicz said he shared his concerns with the Secretary of State Bureau of Elections and was told to process the applications “as I normally would.” He wrote that he did so with the exception of five people who were unregistered to vote, 16 first-time voters required to vote in person, 13 whose signatures didn’t match ones on file, one who moved out of the city and whose last day of voting eligibility was June 19 and another with a name discrepancy.

Joy Yearout, spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, said state officials are reviewing Prusiewicz’s complaint.

Knezek issued a statement Thursday denying his campaign’s involvement and said the clerk’s allegations were “an attempt to damage my credibility on the eve of a major election.”

“I have never solicited anyone to vote by absentee ballot, and I have never delivered any absentee ballot applications or absentee ballots to any city clerk,” Knezek said. “More so, I have never instructed my campaign staff to solicit anyone to vote by absentee ballot or to deliver any absentee ballot applications or absentee ballots to any city clerk.”

It is illegal to solicit voters to fill out absentee ballot applications in the same manner voter registration drives are conducted, Woodhams said.

“It certainly raises questions when someone is dropping hundreds of applications,” Woodhams said. “The clerk here is doing his job, making sure all signatures are valid before issuing the absentee ballots.”

In a statement Wednesday to The Detroit News, Prusiewicz said: “Any qualified elector that has requested an absentee ballot has been issued a ballot and all future requests will be honored as quickly as possible.” He said he alerted authorities to possible irregularities as requested and was “committed to conduct a fair and ethical election in the city of Dearborn Heights as I have always done in the past.”

Last week, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, an advocacy group, claimed that, in some cases, city officials told residents ballots would be mailed to them, though the voters explained they would be overseas and unable to receive them. The group is asking the state or another third party to investigate.

ADC-Michigan Director Fatina Abdrabboh estimated that dozens of voters have contacted her office alleging they did not obtain their absentee ballots on time or had difficulty. The number of residents affected is unclear since applications have been misplaced, gone missing or worse, she said, and some still have not received their ballots.

“We have a situation where the fox is guarding the henhouse,” she said.

Abdrabboh said her group is working with voter rights groups nationwide to determine the next course of action. The amount of support from various coalitions, civil rights organizations and others “speaks volumes,” she said.

The timing of the city clerk’s claims seemed questionable, Abdrabboh said, since they followed outcry over the allegations of ballot suppression and her group’s involvement.

“Whatever he said, to me, is an after-the-fact declaration,” she said.

City resident Jessica Bazzy said she received her absentee ballot after complaining to the ADC but her mother and stepfather are still waiting, though all three requested them at the same time about three weeks ago.

The 23-year-old wants authorities to find out what happened and ensure that everyone eligible to vote has the opportunity.

“As an American, it’s a natural right that we should have,” she said.