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BCI investigates alleged tampering in tight Maple Valley school vote

TOWER CITY, N.D. - Allegations of election tampering have prompted a criminal investigation into a close vote last month in the Maple Valley School District.

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Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney addresses an election tampering investigation within the Maple Valley School District during a news conference at the Cass County Courthouse on Wednesday in Fargo. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

TOWER CITY, N.D. – Allegations of election tampering have prompted a criminal investigation into a close vote last month in the Maple Valley School District.

Investigators are looking into reports that election workers, and other people who were on one side of the vote, tried to illegally sway voters inside a polling site during the Jan. 13 referendum on whether to approve a $10.3 million bond for a new school in Tower City, Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said at a news conference Wednesday.

State law prohibits campaigning in a polling site or within 100 feet of the entrance. It’s a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $3,000 fine, said Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick, who couldn’t recall a case quite like this since he took office in 1999.

Laney would not say which polling site was involved, nor would he disclose which side those under investigation were on or how they were allegedly attempting to influence voters. But he said the results from this particular polling site varied strongly from results at the three other sites in the district.

Judging by the voting results, the outlier Laney alluded to was the polling site in Oriska, where 24 “yes” votes and 90 “no” votes were cast. At the other polling sites in Tower City, Buffalo and Fingal, the majority of voters supported the bond for a new school. The results suggest that the group under investigation was urging voters to oppose the bond.

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For the referendum to succeed, 60 percent of voters needed to support it. The referendum failed by just nine votes .

Maple Valley Superintendent Brian Wolf said meetings were held in the district’s four towns before the vote, and about 60 to 80 residents attended each meeting. He said there was a group organized in favor of the referendum, but he did not know of an organized opposition group.

The $10.3 million bond would have been used to renovate the high school in Tower City and build an addition. The final structure would have served K-12 students, and the grade schools in Oriska and Buffalo would have closed.

Investigation or not, Wolf said, the school district is looking at possibly having residents vote again on the referendum.

He said his district was in charge of the Jan. 13 vote, but received guidance from Cass County election officials.

“We actually had them come out and do training of our judges and clerks,” he said.

Wolf said the four polling sites were staffed by a total of 16 judges and clerks. He said school officials checked on the polls periodically during the voting. In the future, he thinks the district should have a school official at each site throughout the day to monitor voting.

In the days after the vote, school officials heard from various sources that people had been trying to sway voters. The school district shared those reports with the Cass County Sheriff’s Department, and because the district spans two counties, Cass and Barnes, the case was forwarded to the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Laney said.

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BCI spokeswoman Liz Brocker said the bureau could not comment on an ongoing investigation.

Laney declined to identify any suspects in the case. He said it’s still undetermined how many people could be charged.

The sheriff said he held the news conference to dispel any rumors in the community and to let residents know that authorities are investigating the matter.

“The voting process is the very foundation of our nation,” he said. “We definitely need to make sure the integrity of the election process stays clean and untarnished.”

 

How precincts voted:

 

Oriska … 24 yes, 90 no

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Tower City … 115 yes, 40 no

Buffalo … 121 yes, 65 no

Fingal … 35 yes, 25 no

Absentee … 41 yes, 18 no

Total …  336 yes, 238 no

   

Related Topics: CRIMEEDUCATIONCASS COUNTY
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