Politics & Government

Ministers push candidates to sign pledge against vote buying in Magoffin

Lexington Herald-Leader

There's no "Thou shalt not" on vote buying in the Bible, but it's a sin nonetheless, according to a group of Magoffin County pastors trying to discourage the pernicious practice in a place where it has long corrupted the fabric of politics.

The ministers have asked local candidates in the general election to make a public pledge not to buy votes or provide money for others to buy votes for them, and to report anyone who buys votes for them to Attorney General Jack Conway's office.

The local Salyersville Independent newspaper has been running a copy of the pledge in the paper with the names of those who have signed, and posting photos of the signed pledges on its Facebook page.

Judge-Executive Charles "Doc" Hardin said nearly every candidate for local office has signed the pledge, himself included.

Justin Williams, who pastors Lakeville Baptist Church and helped organize the effort, said the hope was that the pledge "will ultimately lead to a day that when I take my daughters to vote for the first time, that vote buying will be a distant memory in Magoffin County."

That wouldn't qualify as a miracle on the order of parting the Red Sea, but it would be remarkable.

A local lawyer once described Magoffin County as the "vote-buying capital of the world" — quite a claim in a region long plagued by candidates buying votes with money, liquor, drugs or power over jobs.

In one notable case, the Magoffin County school superintendent, Carter Whitaker, made headlines in 1987 when he acknowledged to the Herald-Leader that vote buying was commonplace.

"I could quit doing it and lose this job. Then they would get somebody in this job that will do it, and he'll keep the job because he does it," Whitaker was quoted as saying.

Whitaker later denied being involved in vote fraud, but he resigned in 1993 after the state education commissioner accused him of more than a dozen instances of misconduct, including buying votes.

Vote buying was still a problem in Magoffin County nearly 20 years later, when a judge ruled the 2010 general election was tainted by fraud after two unsuccessful candidates sued to overturn the results.

Republican John P. Montgomery lost the judge-executive's race to incumbent Hardin, a Democrat, and Sheriff Randall Bob Jordan, a Democrat, lost to Republican challenger Carson Montgomery.

Witnesses testified that Randy Salyer, a Democrat on the county election board whose wife worked for Hardin, was involved in buying absentee ballots for $50 to $100 apiece. Absentee ballots can be a vehicle for fraud because voters can sign them and sell them to others who fill in the candidate choices.

A judge said the losing candidates in the 2010 election had raised suspicion that Hardin and Montgomery knew about vote buying by their supporters.

Both denied being involved in vote buying, and Judge William Engle ruled there was insufficient evidence that the two took part in the fraud or had enough knowledge of it to justify setting aside the election results.

The next year, however, a federal jury convicted Sal yer of buying votes. He was sentenced to 21 months in prison.

Suspicions of election fraud flared again in the May primary. The initial vote count showed former county clerk H.B. Arnett defeating Hardin in the Democratic primary by three votes, 2,022 to 2,019.

But in a recount two weeks later, Arnett lost one vote in the absentee count and Hardin picked up five absentee votes, putting Hardin ahead by three votes.

Arnett's attorney, Gordon Long, said that on Election Day, there were nine paper absentee ballots that had votes in other races but not in the contest between Arnett and Hardin.

Arnett and his supporters think that after the initial vote was announced, someone added votes for Hardin to some of the ballots that had been blank, Long said.

However, County Clerk Renee Arnett Shepherd said there was no tampering with the ballot boxes, and Hardin's attorney contended there was no fraud, but rather an error in the initial vote tally that was found in the recount.

The state Court of Appeals directed that Hardin be certified the winner.

Williams said he and other ministers often get questions about their views on scriptural matters. After the primary, and with the general election approaching, a good number of the questions were about vote buying, including what the Bible says about it, Williams said.

A group of more than a dozen ministers decided to confront the issue with a letter to the newspaper in late September.

The letter acknowledged there is no verse in the Bible that says don't buy votes, but the pastors — all from Baptist or other Protestant churches — said there was plenty of Scripture to conclude Christians should not be involved in buying or selling votes.

For one thing, it's illegal, and verses such as 1 Peter 2:13-14 make clear Christians are to obey the law unless it conflicts with Scripture, the letter said. Vote buying also constitutes bribery, which the Bible teaches against, and does not show Christ-like behavior, the pastors said in the letter.

In addition, vote fraud exploits the poor, which is against biblical teaching, the pastors said.

The pastors decided to pursue the candidates' pledge against vote buying after writing to the paper, Williams said.

Williams, recently appointed as the Republican member of the county election board, said the response to the pastors' efforts had been mostly positive.

Some people think pastors should not be involved in politics, but preachers involved in the pledge said that vote fraud was not a partisan issue and that people of faith have a duty to speak out against injustice.

The ministers are not endorsing or condemning any candidate or party, but rather are trying to promote a clean election, said Richard Greene, pastor of Licking River Baptist Church.

"We've been part of the problem by being silent," he said.

Some people have scoffed that asking candidates to take the pledge won't accomplish anything, but Greene said the effort already had an effect by bringing attention to the issue.

"It's coffee talk in local restaurants, and that to me is success," he said.

The pledge has angered some people because they took it as a smack at Hardin, but that is not the intent, Williams said.

Hardin told the Herald-Leader he didn't take the pledge as an affront, but also didn't regard it as an important issue. Candidates he talked to said they had no intention of buying votes anyway, so they would sign the pledge and "move on to the real issues," he said.

Manuel Montgomery, chairman of the county Republican Party, said the pledge would help keep some people honest, but other measures would be needed to combat the culture of vote-buying.

"It will take some of 'em going to jail to really put a stop to it," he said.