Lucy Corrato, a 91-year-old former South Philadelphia resident, is a longtime, dedicated nonvoter.
She arrived at St. Francis Center for Rehabilitation & Health Care in 2014 having deliberately avoided voting for decades.
Nicholas Corrato estimated that his mother hadn’t voted in at least 30 years because she never wanted to get called for jury duty. Philadelphia election officials say they have no record that she was ever registered to vote in the city.
This spring, Corrato’s streak was broken.
On April 17, the last day to register before the May primary, she became a registered voter in Delaware County, at St. Francis’ address in Darby Borough, just over the Southwest Philadelphia border. Minutes later, an application for an absentee ballot was submitted on her behalf for the Democratic primary, according to the election bureau time stamp.
Corrato’s signature is missing from both forms. She has insisted to her son that she didn’t vote and that no one asked her about registering.
“There wasn’t a signature. There was just an x,” said Nicholas Corrato, who has power of attorney for his mother. “She was either coerced or someone else put an x for her name.”
“That’s voter fraud,” Corrato, 67, a retired salesman, said in his home near 19th and Oregon Streets.
It might not be an isolated case at St. Francis, according to records reviewed by the Inquirer and Daily News and interviews with relatives of other elderly residents. The records include absentee-ballot applications with similar handwriting and time-stamped within minutes of one another.
Voter history records show that 34 people at St. Francis’ address on Lansdowne Avenue voted in the May primary, all by absentee ballot.
A spokesman for St. Francis said this week that it was looking into the matter. The county district attorney’s special investigations division is also asking questions.
The absentee ballots were cast in Darby Borough’s May primary, in which Democratic Mayor Helen Thomas and challenger Paula Brown were both claiming victory when the voting-machine count gave Thomas a lead of five votes, 283-278.
But when absentee and provisional ballots were later tallied, Thomas pulled ahead by 18 votes, securing the nomination, 304-286. She faces Brown again in Tuesday’s general election because Brown won enough write-in votes to secure the Republican nomination. Both say they had no role in the St. Francis ballots.
Nicholas Corrato said his mother doesn’t know anything about Thomas or Brown, or any other candidates, and didn’t authorize anyone to vote on her behalf.
“If anyone asks her to do anything, the first thing she says is, ‘You got to talk to my son first,’ ” Corrato said. “She watches all the game shows. She has no clue who the candidates are, so why would she vote?”
When Corrato confronted an administrator at St. Francis, he said he was told “things fall through the cracks sometimes.”
“Did it fall through the cracks 34 times?” he asked, referring to the total count of absentee ballots from St. Francis.
Violet Heath, 96, who has lived at St. Francis since 2005, also cast an absentee ballot in the May primary, records show. That was news to her grandson, Christian Heath, when informed of the vote last week by the Inquirer and Daily News.
“She doesn’t even know an election is taking place, so she wouldn’t express a desire to do so,” Heath said.
Heath said his grandmother is relatively healthy, but she has shown symptoms of dementia in recent years. He said she doesn’t follow national political news, let alone state and local elections.
“She may know that Trump is president, but it’s very possible she doesn’t even know who the president is at this point,” Heath said. “She recognizes family that visits often, but you have to do a lot of repeating, and she’s forgetful.”
Heath’s voter-registration form and absentee-ballot applications are time-stamped the same minute on April 17 as Corrato’s, and neither includes her signature.
Around the same time, Thelma Robinson, 86, a St. Francis resident since 2014, also registered and applied for an absentee ballot, records show. She appears to have signed the forms, but Robinson’s daughter, Bernadette Robinson, said last week that her mother is incapable of voting on her own.
“My mom has dementia,” Robinson said. “She doesn’t know what’s going on in terms of voting.”
Robinson said neither she nor her brother, who has power of attorney for their mother, was contacted by St. Francis staff.
“One of us should have gotten a call, because she can’t make those choices,” Robinson said. “My mom still has mobility in her hand, so if you tell her to sign something, she’ll sign it. But I don’t think she really knows what she’s signing.”
The top half of the absentee-ballot applications for Corrato, Heath, and Robinson all appear to have been written by the same person. Some of the documents list St. Francis employees as having assisted the residents in voting.
On Lucy Corrato’s absentee-ballot application, a woman named Lateeya Frazier signed for Corrato in the section reserved for voters who are “unable to sign because of illness or physical disability.”
Just two weeks ago, however, Nicholas Corrato recorded video of his mother writing her name with near-perfect penmanship.
“She signed it with no trouble,” Corrato said.
When the Inquirer and Daily News called St. Francis and asked for Frazier, the woman who answered the phone said “one moment” and transferred the call to the voicemail for Sonya Sutton, an employee whose signature appears on Corrato’s voter-registration form.
Sutton and Frazier could not be reached for comment.
“I’m not able to discuss issues related to individual patients or personnel,” said Vincenzo Manzella, a regional administrator for St. Francis. “But, I can tell you that we are looking into this matter internally.”
The 273-bed nursing home was sold in 2014 by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to Center Management Group of New York. In September, the Pennsylvania Department of Health initiated the process of revoking its license after an inspection found serious problems with care, including a patient that had developed “wounds that went down to the bone with exposed tendon.”
Darby Borough police and agents from the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office raided St. Francis on Wednesday. That investigation appears to be related to health care, not allegations of voter fraud.
It is unknown whom Corrato and other St. Francis residents voted for by absentee ballot. Their relatives question whether staffers were working with candidates in the election.
Thomas, the mayor who narrowly won the primary, said last week that her campaign wasn’t involved with any absentee ballots. She questioned whether Brown, her former ally turned political nemesis, was behind the St. Francis votes.
“You want a good story?” Thomas asked from her front doorstep. “Come back after I beat that girl.”
Brown, who will face off against Thomas in Tuesday’s general election, thinks someone affiliated with Thomas was involved. She had been suspicious of the St. Francis votes since the night of the primary, when Thomas told the Delaware County Daily Times that she had “won by no more than 50 votes” when the final count on the voting machines showed that she had only a five-vote lead.
“We were thinking, ‘She can’t count!’ ” said Brown, who had initially expected that absentee ballots from her supporters would put her over the top.
Brown, a seasoned veteran of Darby Borough’s close-quarters political combat, is seeking reelection after more than a decade out of public office.
In 1989, the year after she was first elected councilwoman at age 26, Brown was handcuffed and arrested by the police chief for being too disruptive. As mayor, Brown made national news for parking her 1980 Dodge Diplomat on the CSX railroad tracks – disrupting freight from Maine to Florida – and for locking herself in her office when her political foes tried to cut off her access to the police station.
Regardless of the results of Tuesday’s election, Brown wants county detectives to get to the bottom of what happened in the primary.
“My main concern is that this never happens again,” she said. “I think whoever is responsible for doing that should be prosecuted.”
Staff writers Chris Brennan and Dylan Purcell contributed to this report.