Four years ago, the ballot box at Central Activities Center seemed to portend a third term for former Phenix City Councilwoman Gail Brantley. She garnered some 53 percent of votes cast the day of the 2008 runoff -- but that tally told only part of the story.
A little-known challenger, Michelle E. Walker, trounced Brantley in absentee votes, winning nearly three-fourths of those ballots. With the help of Ronnie Reed, a Russell County commissioner and savvy political operative, Walker unseated Brantley in District 2 with a staggering 36 percent of her supporters voting absentee.
The upset underscored the outsize and often controversial role absentee voting has played in Phenix City politics over the years. While essential for folks who can't make it to the polls, absentee voting has been a dubious X factor in municipal elections, deciding races at times and arousing suspicions when candidates receive lopsided support.
Law enforcement officials, seeking to head off abuse before the Aug. 28 election, sounded a public warning at a recent news conference to deter potential voter fraud, and authorities have vowed to prosecute even technical voting violations. Councilman Jimmy Wetzel, who said he's not staking his campaign on absentees, took exception to the warning, saying it would cause a chilling effect among voters already intimidated by the process.
But if past is prologue, the hunt for absentees still will go a long way in paring down a crowded field of nearly two dozen candidates.
In 2008, Brantley recognized the importance of absentees, and, like other candidates, sought to recruit them. But she was outmuscled by a well-oiled campaign machine that gave Walker and others a running start before the precincts even opened.
"What people always say about (Reed) is he's run so many times and done absentees so many times he's perfected the system of doing it," Wetzel said. Wetzel dominated the absentee vote and also got help from Reed, but he said he didn't hire anyone for that purpose.
"There are quite a few people that work absentees," he added, "and certainly some of those people worked absentees for me and other candidates."
Candidates legally can pay workers to seek out voters receiving absentee ballots or to help eligible voters apply for one. But a campaign worker would cross the line in pressuring -- or paying -- a voter to choose a certain candidate, or by falsifying information.
"In the past, it has always been a point of contention where everyone feels like it's been taken advantage of," Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor said of absentees. "It's unfortunate because it brings a whole cloud over the election process that doesn't need to be there."
The 2008 city and county elections drew unusual proportions of absentee voting and prompted criminal investigations. In the county race, authorities received complaints that the same names appeared repeatedly as witnesses to absentee voter signatures, according to court records. Reed won the county commissioner race that year with an unheard of 79 percent of his votes coming from absentees.
Investigators also subpoenaed absentee ballots after the August 2008 city election, having received complaints involving "some of the same individuals" as the county race, according to a motion to unseal election records. Prosecutors recommended indictments -- they declined to say against whom -- but a grand jury "no billed" the case and issued no charges.
The city election featured a degree of absentee voting not usually seen in other Alabama jurisdictions. Nine percent of the votes were absentees in the 2008 municipal election -- almost twice the percentage of the 2004 race -- and the proportion soared to 17 percent in the runoff races won by Walker and Wetzel. The state average hovers between 3 percent and 4 percent, said Tamara Cofield, a spokeswoman for Alabama Secretary of State Beth Chapman.
This year, investigators have resolved four or five complaints without finding wrongdoing, Taylor said, and are still looking into at least one claim involving absentee ballots. Sensitive to any hint of disenfranchisement, Taylor and others emphasized the importance of absentee voting.
"Absentee ballots are a vital part of the process that has to be afforded to the citizens," the sheriff said. But the hustling of absentee votes invites abuse, authorities said, as evidenced by Phenix City's history of scandals.
"If somebody is looking to commit vote fraud, the opportunity is there with absentees," Russell County District Attorney Ken Davis said. "The law actually gives an opening. It gives the opportunity for one-on-one contact with the voter."
Unlike Georgia, Alabama doesn't offer early voting and requires voters give a reason for voting absentee. The laws have become more stringent over the years.
Absentee voters are required to provide identification and sign an affidavit in front of two witnesses or a notary public for their vote to be counted. Voters break the law if they claim a reason for voting absentee that's not true.
But in a border community like Phenix City, it's not implausible for voters to claim they must be out of the county on Election Day. Other absentee excuses include illness and military service.
Interviews with current and former candidates revealed differing views of the role of absentee ballots. Some said incumbents like Wetzel have an advantage over political newcomers unseasoned in the mechanism of generating absentee votes.
"It's something that you have to learn through several cycles of running," said County Commissioner Tillman M. Pugh, who avoided a runoff in this year's primary thanks to about 16 absentee votes. Pugh actively sought those votes -- a fraction of the 700 or so cast in his district -- and said large absentee percentages should raise a red flag.
"On a small amount of absentees, you can tell that people have worked to make sure they got their voters there," Pugh said. "But I just don't see how you could get that many absentees unless you went into a nursing home and re-registered everybody."
Unlike Walker, Wetzel easily would have won election without the help of absentees. But he benefitted from a pattern of absentee voting that was disproportionate to votes cast at the precincts.
Four candidates -- including Mayor Sonny Coulter and Councilman Arthur L. Sumbry Sr. -- won a combined 57 percent of the vote in the 2008 election, but took 84 percent of the absentee ballots. That trend continued in the runoff, with Wetzel and Walker together taking 64 percent of the overall vote and a combined 78 percent of absentees.
But those percentages paled in comparison to Reed's performance in the county commission race. He won election without a runoff in 2008, with 201 of his 254 votes coming from absentees.
Reed last week said he's trying to stay "neutral" and "out of the picture" for a while, though he acknowledged supporting Wetzel and other candidates in the coming election. He said he's not involved in soliciting absentee votes this time around.
"If somebody calls me and asks me a question, I just tell them what they can do and what they can't do and stuff like that," Reed said.
Gail Head, a retired educator running against Walker in District 2, said she's watching absentees closely because they determined the race in 2008. "I've read and studied and have had some real good notes on recruiting absentee ballots and would go exactly by the letter of the law," she said.
J.W. Brannen, a former city councilman who's run in several races, said he often was approached by campaign workers who offered to handle his absentee votes for pay.
"Anybody that's got the money to do it will get the opportunity in the end," said Brannen, who received just 15 absentee votes to Wetzel's 175 in the 2008 councilmember-at-large race. "I was always really concerned that I'd be accused of something and might mistakenly violate the law somewhere, so I just stayed away from it."
Annals of abuse
Allegations of voter fraud aren't unique to Phenix City, but the city has a history of infractions when it comes to absentee voting. Davis, the district attorney, couldn't recall an election cycle without complaints. "It's a matter of degree," he said.
Nathaniel Gosha, a former county commissioner and city council candidate, was convicted in 2002 of 25 felonies and 12 misdemeanors in a scheme to sell absentee ballots. He was caught on tape the year before offering to arrange for a co-defendant to meet with a candidate to sell ballots for $5 each.
City Councilman Arthur L. Sumbry Sr.'s first round of criminal charges involved absentees as well. He and two other candidates raised eyebrows in the 1980 election after receiving nearly 100 absentee votes apiece compared to the eight or so received by each of the remaining 11 candidates.
Sumbry was convicted of perjury and unlawful voter registration and later received a pardon. He's currently under felony indictment in a perjury and forgery case unrelated to election fraud.
Former City Councilman Noble Williams requested a review of absentee ballots in 1995 after losing to Sumbry. The men tied at the District 3 polls with 432 votes apiece, but Sumbry slaughtered Williams 169 to 9 in absentees. In 1992, it was Sumbry who claimed Williams' absentee votes unfairly cost him the election; a court ruled against him.
Former Mayor Woodrow "Skeet" Wilson was charged in 1977 with buying votes for wife Dolly during her campaign for the county commission. He later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge.
In 1976, then-city building inspector Jack Brassell was convicted of forging an absentee ballot in a city commission election, a charge that stemmed from two absentee ballots purportedly cast by the same woman.
"We know what happened to our town in the '50s," then-District Attorney Bill Benton told jurors at the time. "There is no case that could be brought before you that would have more profound effect."