Seven weeks before votes are cast, the incumbent in Philadelphia’s 7th Council District is calling for an investigation of possible fraud in the contest.
Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez has asked the City Commissioners Office to review data related to “highly suspect” ballots cast in 2015 and to add training for election workers to ensure voters are not unfairly influenced during the May 21 primary.
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Quiñones-Sánchez, who is seeking a fourth term, has also asked Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro to review the results of the 2015 primary and any new protocols developed to safeguard the results of this year’s primary.
Quiñones-Sánchez points to her challenger, State Rep. Angel Cruz, as reason for the alarm. Cruz, the Democratic leader of the 7th Ward, helped run the campaign of Quiñones-Sánchez’s 2015 challenger, Manny Morales. She has accused both men of using an influx of money from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 for a program that illegally influenced voters inside voting booths. Cruz has called the accusations frivolous.
The race to represent the Seventh District, which includes most of North Philadelphia, Kensington, and Port Richmond, will again pit Quiñones-Sánchez against the party-backed ward leaders with whom she has feuded for years.
Quiñones-Sánchez, in letters to Shapiro and Krasner, cites the $100,000 Local 98 spread around the district in 2015 but does not mention the union by name. In an email to supporters in February, she linked the money to the union.
Local 98 leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, City Councilman Bobby Henon, and six other union officials were indicted Jan. 30, accused of embezzling more than $600,000 from 2010 to 2016. Each has pleaded not guilty.
At the heart of Quiñones-Sánchez’s concerns is a heavy reliance in her district on “voter assistance.”
Voters who wish to bring someone into the voting booth with them to assist can sign an affidavit for permission to do so. In the 2015 primary, more than 1,000 ballots were cast with assistance in 156 divisions in the 7th District, Quiñones-Sánchez said. In all the 1,681 other divisions, she said, only 200 assisted votes were cast.
Those numbers could not be independently confirmed Tuesday.
Quiñones-Sánchez, in a news release, accused Cruz of “illegal activity” four years ago. In an interview, she said a review of that race’s results suggested an unusually high number of requests for voting assistance in the 7th and 19th Wards, run by Cruz ally Carlos Matos. She lost both wards.
“When people ask me why this last election was so close, we had no idea how deep they were going,” said Quiñones-Sánchez, who won that primary by 868 votes..
Cruz dismissed the allegations, noting Quiñones-Sánchez made a similar call for authorities to keep an eye out for election fraud in 2015.
“We haven’t even voted. The election’s two months away and you’re going to say people are stealing the election from you?” Cruz said. “Councilwoman Sanchez needs to stop playing the little boy who cries wolf and wait to see what happens. I’m not committing fraud.”
Cruz said evidence of more people voting with assistance doesn’t indicate illegal activity.
“The voter decides, we don’t. People want assistance and that’s what that affidavit is there for," he said. "So she’s saying the whole process needs changing? Maybe she should run for City Commissioner.”
Cruz has made no secret of his friendship with Dougherty and said Tuesday he’d “gladly accept” money from Local 98 or any of the city’s unions. He said he’s asked all of them for donations.
Law enforcement officials would not commit to approving a specific fraud-prevention plan for the 7th District.
Joe Grace, a spokesperson for Shapiro, noted the state attorney general had investigated election-fraud allegations in a 2017 special election in the state House’s 197th District, which overlaps with the Council district. Four people were charged with crimes; one pleaded guilty to fraud by an election officer.
"We will not hesitate to prosecute election law violations — wherever we find them,” Grace said.
Ben Waxman, a spokesperson for Krasner’s office, said Quiñones-Sánchez’s letter is being reviewed.
“We take any report of election fraud extremely seriously and plan to deploy a robust task force during the primary election in May, not only in the 7th District but throughout the city,” Waxman said.