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Vote-Fraud Charges Cap Dispute Over School Site

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The way Jay Mosher sees it, if a new elementary school is to be built in Iowa's Southeast Warren Community School District, it will be built in his hometown of Milo, even if it takes some pretty hard-nosed political tactics to make sure that happens.

Yes, he acknowledged last week, Milo supporters had asked the grandson of a town resident to vote by absentee ballot in a still-undecided referendum on the school-site issue--even though the man lives in another state.

Yes, Mr. Mosher said, another absentee voter who chose Milo over a rival town had moved away from the area after he finished the 6th grade.

Yes, he continued, people whose addresses were nothing more than cornfields or long-bulldozed barns had registered for absentee ballots.

But, added Mr. Mosher, who is chairman of the Milo Site Committee, if his side had not registered all those absentee voters, the people of rival Lacona and Liberty Center might have been assured of getting the first new elementary school to be built in the school district since 1923.

And since some citizens of those towns were playing political hardball on the issue, too, he contended, that would not have been fair.

The battle over the location of the proposed new school has escalated over the course of four inconclusive referendums on the issue, the most recent of which was on May 28. The age-old small-town rivalry underlying the dispute is now nearing a climax of sorts amid charges of widespread vote fraud.

In proceedings being monitored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and state and Warren County law-enforcement authorities, the county's top election official is examining some 200 contested ballots from the most recent vote and hopes to have a final tally late this month.

Costs, Distances Cited

Vying for the new school are Milo, a town of 864, which is favored by the district's school board and the Iowa Department of Education, and Liberty Center, an unincorporated area of about 50 that is already home to the district's junior and senior high schools. Throwing its weight behind Liberty City is Lacona, a town of 357 and Milo's traditional rival.

Mr. Mosher's committee and other Milo boosters say the school should be built in the largest of the three towns, a bedroom community about 30 miles south of Des Moines. Opponents say such a move would decentralize the district, increase educational costs, and lengthen busing distances for many of the students in the sparsely populated agricultural county.

"We're not a Milo district. We're a Southeast Warren district," said Ruth Butler, a retired teacher from Lacona and a Liberty Center supporter. "Ev8erybody has the same right as Milo people to be on the bus as little a time as possible."

But according to Warren County Auditor Beverly Dickerson, the passion of the debate comes not from educational concerns but from the stuff that local rivalries are traditionally made of: football teams, little league, and hometown pride.

Of the 1,630 ballots cast last month, 433 were absentee, according to Ms. Dickerson, who is also the county's commissioner of elections. And no one, she said, is even pretending all those 433 voters live anywhere near southeastern Warren County.

As of last week, more than 200 ballots had been challenged, about 60 by Milo supporters and about 90 by Liberty Center backers, with the balance questioned by the county's election board.

A final tally will not be available before June 25, Ms. Dickerson said. Until then, she has arranged hearings every 15 minutes from 8 A.M. to 6 P.M. to sift through the challenged ballots. In addition to the fbi, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and Warren County Attorney Kevin Parker are keeping an eye on the process.

The dispute is no laughing matter, Mr. Parker stressed last week. Under Iowa law, he said, false voter registration carries a maximum penalty of one year in prison or a $1,000 fine, while a forged signature on an absentee ballot can result in a two-year sentence or a $5,000 fine.

60 Percent Vote Needed

Currently, the 650-student district's elementary pupils are assigned to one of two dilapidated buildings, one built in Lacona and dating to, the other constructed in Milo in 1923, according to Superintendent of Schools Tom Behounek. The Milo school serves children in kindergarten through grade 3, and the Lacona school houses grades 4 to 6.

In October 1989, a referendum on whether to build a new school to replace the two buildings garnered the support of only 49 percent of those voting, Mr. Mosher said.

The following spring, the school board tried again. This time, the proposal to build the $2.9-million school easily passed. But a referendum on building the school in Milo received the approval of 54 percent of the voters, well short of the 60 percent needed. A proposal that called for building the school in Liberty Center garnered less than 50 percent of the vote.

Last November, on the board's third try, Milo garnered 57.3 percent, only about 50 votes short of the number required. Milo was denied a victory, Mr. Mosher claims, by fraudulent absentee ballots cast by former Lacona residents. "That's when I suggested we had to do a little bit of what they were doing," he said.

Ms. Butler, the retired teacher, said charges of fraud in the November voting were greatly exaggerated.

Unusual Number of Requests

In all, 758 voters applied for absentee ballots for last month's referendum, Ms. Dickerson, the county auditor, said. By comparison, the first vote in 1989 prompted 29 requests for absentee ballots.

Many of the May absentee votes were cast by legitimate residents, Ms. Dickerson said, although she acknowledged that their reasons for not being able to vote in person may have bent the truth a bit. Aggres4sive campaigners from both sides, she said, were suggesting to people who would normally stay away from the polls that they vote absentee.

"A think a lot of people just went up and down the streets saying, 'Why don't you vote absentee? We'll make your vote count,"' Ms. Dickerson said.

But other absentee-ballot requests were wholly illegitimate, according to county officials. Mr. Parker, the county attorney, said his office had been tipped off to vote fraud when a sheriff's deputy received an absentee ballot in the mail that he had never ordered. Mr. Parker alerted a handwriting expert from the state's criminal-investigation division, who is now scrutinizing absentee-ballot signatures to identify repeat penmanship.

Ultimately, those following the dispute admit, the new school may never be built if the site is to be determined by the electorate. They say the Lacona-Liberty Center alliance, coupled with votes from surrounding rural areas, has enough support to block Milo, but not nearly enough to win.

And efforts by both sides to bolster their vote tallies will be more vigilantly monitored in the future, county officials say.

The school board has asked the Iowa attorney general whether it can force a decision in the event of an electoral stalemate. If not, the board has asked how to amend state law to allow a simple majority to pick the site.

Last week, with both sides rallying their troops and petitioning for a new vote, county officials were shaking their heads.

"With the feelings that are down there, I can't imagine this will ever pass, and I certainly can't imagine those feelings ever cooling off," Ms. Dickerson said. "They just get worse each time."

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