Students' polling places switched in medical marijuana petition scam

October 22, 2004

Dennis B. Roddy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

An unknown number of University of Pittsburgh students who signed a petition to legalize medical marijuana have had their party registrations and polling places switched -- adding to the number of college students apparently targeted by a voter registration scam.

In the latest cases to come to light, students say they never filled out voter registration forms and that they believe their names, addresses and other details were simply copied onto a form by someone else.

'My polling place was switched to the basement of an apartment building in south Oakland,' said Margaret Talarico, who usually votes at home in Upper St. Clair. She was among dozens of students approached as they walked across the campus last month and asked to sign a petition to legalize medical marijuana.

On other campuses, students have said they signed such a petition but were then asked to fill out the signature and address portions of voter registration forms in order to verify their identities. Those forms were later filled out to register the students as Republicans. In the latest case, students say they never saw a registration form.

'My son never put a change of address in anywhere,' said Mara O'Neill, whose son, Sean, 22, was among the Pitt students who signed the petition. O'Neill said her son listed an address where he stays with friends during the school week and that he has never listed that address any other place. He receives his mail at home in O'Hara, and, until he was suddenly reassigned as a Republican voter in Shadyside, has always cast his ballots near his home.

A friend of O'Neill's, Camilla Kydland, also signed the petition, but listed her home address in Fox Chapel. That's where she received her notice that she is now enrolled in the Republican Party.

Another student, Margot Goldberg, said she was approached by a team of canvassers in another part of campus. They asked her to sign the petition, then presented her with a form to verify her citizenship. Goldberg isn't certain whether it was a voter registration form. What she is sure of is that she was suddenly a registered Republican and her polling place had been switched from Colfax School to Wightman School, both in the 14th Ward.

'It's pretty wacky,' Goldberg said. 'I hope that people can figure out where they're supposed to vote.'

The newest wrinkle in the voter registration scam comes on the heels of reports that hundreds of students at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and dozens at colleges in eastern Pennsylvania were told they needed to fill out blank voter registration forms in order to sign petitions advocating medical marijuana or lower auto insurance rates. Similar scams have been reported in Oregon, where students at Portland State University and Oregon State had their registrations switched, as well as Florida.

The total number of students affected is not known, because elections officials do not learn of problems until voters complain about having their party affiliations changed or until they show up at the polls only to discover that they have been registered to vote in other places.

'It's going to confuse a lot of votes,' said Talarico, who said a dozen or so students in one of her classes said they had signed the marijuana petition on their way across campus. Talarico said she saw approximately four canvassers working the plaza between the Litchfield Tower dormitories and the William Pitt Student Union building the morning she signed the petition.

'They got a ton of people signed,' she said.

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