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Vote-rigging surfaces in online City Council poll

Rules broken to gain entry to popular Candidates Gone Wild event

It's not quite Watergate, but one has to call it something: Cookiegate?

It appears that supporters for several City Council candidates - or the candidates themselves - have attempted to rig the vote to qualify for 'Candidates Gone Wild,' the combination debate/game show sponsored by Willamette Week and the Oregon Bus Project.

Hundreds of fraudulent votes have been cast in an online poll by removing the computer's website'cookie' after each vote. The poll in question determines which candidates will be invited to participate in the April 28 event. The controversy has centered around one race, for the seat being vacated by mayoral candidate Sam Adams.

Depending on the race, only the top two or three vote-getters in the online poll will be invited to the event. One computer, one vote, was the rule posted on the www.candidatesgonewild.com Web site.

Contacted about the rumors circulating about the poll, Willamette Week editor Mark Zusman recently confirmed that 'vote fraud' had occurred.

He said that early in the voting, the computer whiz hired to manage the events site detected some irregularities in the voting patterns, and realized that someone had figured out how to remove the internet 'cookies' thus enabling multiple votes.

Cookies are automatically generated internet markers that can tell a website whether a computer had visited there before.

'There was a spike in the voting for one candidate,' Zusman said, adding that the company 'in fact did find that someone was gaming the system. The good thing is we can detect it and remove the votes.'

He added that several hundred bogus votes have been cast in all, saying,'I guess I should take it as a compliment that people want to be in Candidates Gone Wild bad enough that they are trying to (game the system).'

News of the vote-rigging has been circulating among the event's organizing committee as well as candidates' supporters.

The campaign of Charles Lewis was among the first to notice odd voting patterns on the site. In a March 19 e-mail to an event organizer with the Oregon Bus Project, Lewis aide Jake Oliver wrote that 'A candidate in our race made an unprecedented climb from fifth in the balloting to first in a very short period of time.This candidate's vote total has remained static since building a comfortable lead.'

Contacted by the Portland Tribune, Lewis said the spike in question was in John Branam's totals, and included a boost of 150 votes in 25 minutes. He said that the poll's tallies have continued to fluctuate oddly.

'Either an overzealous supporter or the campaigns themselves have fraudulently voted - and that's ridiculous,' Lewis said. 'I don't want to accuse anybody of anything, but it's just pretty darn suspicious that this keeps happening.'

Sources confirmed Lewis' observation that the initial 'spike' in voting was cast on behalf of Branam, and that Branam has been the chief recipient of bogus votes. Later, a lesser number of bogus votes were cast for two other candidates in that race, Lewis and Amanda Fritz.

Most of the votes in the initial spike for Branam were cast from just two computers, both located in San Francisco.

Branam is from San Francisco originally, and his campaign manager, Phil Busse, used to work in San Francisco as a lawyer. However, Branam and Busse said they have no idea who had engaged in the vote-rigging.

Branam said he does not even know how to cheat in the poll, and 'I wasn't even aware that it was an issue. I certainly didn't tell anyone to do it.'

Busse said that as soon as the poll opened they heard from supporters that it was possible to cheat. The campaign promptly instructed them not to, Busse said.

He said that when the campaigns first learned about the poll, 'I checked with (Candidates Gone Wild) immediately asking them how are you going to check who is a registered voter and who is not a registered voter? .. They hadn't even thought of that, which is frustrating for us in the campaign ... Who's to say that somebody in Singapore can't be voting? Nothing against voters in Singapore, but one can assume that it's not going to be the most educated vote.'

He said it's too bad the event won't have all the candidates appear, and raised questions about Lewis' poll numbers, saying, 'They jump up and then they promptly get knocked back up. I think clearly the candidates are concerned about being in the top three. I feel like this is an unfortunate distraction from the core mission of the campaigns.'

James Swartout, a Lewis aide, said his campaign has discouraged supporters from cheating. 'We're totally against that,' he said.

In late March, Branam sent a plea to his campaign's e-mail list calling Candidates Gone Wild 'a very important candidate forum' and urging people to vote in the online poll.

In his e-mail, Branam informed people that 'you don't even need to be in Portland to cast a vote.' He also urged people to take into account the rules that in his race, each online voter must name three candidates they want to see at the event.

'You are required to vote for three people' in his race, Branam wrote, adding that in addition to voting for him, 'Strategically, my recommendations would be for Amanda Fritz and Mike Fahey.'

Fritz is the clear frontrunner in the online poll, while Fahey is running a distant last place. Therefore, Branam's main competitors for the final two slots at the candidates forum are Lewis, Chris Smith and Jeff Bissonette. By urging people to vote for Fritz and Fahey in addition to himself, Branam apparently hoped to avoid helping his rivals for the event appearance.

In a March 25 e-mail to the event organizers, Swartout protested that Branam's e-mail plea to 'strategically' vote for Fahey and Fritz 'goes against the whole spirit and intention of the online poll.'

Echoing Swartout, the organizing team for the event sent out an e-mail on April 3 that addressed both the vote-rigging and the 'strategic' recommendations, saying that 'it has come to our attention that some liberties have been taken with the system.'

The e-mail warned the campaigns said that multiple votes from a single computer is 'bad form.'

It also said that 'Voter Owned Elections considers it inappropriate to support or oppose any other candidate ... And so do we.'

Branam said he did not realize anyone considered his advice to be inappropriate, and said he urged votes for Fritz and Fahey in part because he finds them to be the most like-minded among the candidates for Adams' seat.

'I've encouraged people to vote for Mike and Amanda because I think it's particularly helpful for making sure that both that I get into Candidates Gone Wild and because I think they are the two candidates that I most want to see participating and being successful in the race,' he said.

Lewis said that he is concerned that the vote tally seems to still be behaving oddly. 'The numbers are jumping all over the place,' he said.

'We're doing the best we can,' Zusman said. 'I think we're catching any cheating.'

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