Vodka for votes: Arkansas rep, operatives await sentencing in fraud scheme

The plan: offering cheap vodka ... for votes.

It was part of a scheme to steal an election in eastern Arkansas that included absentee ballot fraud and buying votes with money, food and even alcohol.

"I guess I always knew all along it was wrong, but I really didn't think it was that big a deal," explained former Democratic state Rep. Hudson Hallum. "I always heard ... that's what everybody did."

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Hallum and three others have pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to commit election fraud during the special election that put him in the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2011. A total of nine people have been charged by federal and state authorities in connection with the plan.

According to the indictment filed by the U.S. attorney's office in Little Rock, Hallum told co-defendant Phillip Wayne Cater, a West Memphis, Arkansas City Councilman, "We need to use that black limo and buy a couple of cases of some cheap vodka and whiskey to get people to vote."

Prosecutors say Carter, along with Hallum's father, Kent Hallum, tried to get a discount from a liquor distributor in Memphis, Tenn., on 100 half-pints of vodka, for $200.

In Little Rock, at least one brand of vodka retails for $2 per half-pint plastic bottle, so it does not appear they would have received any savings.

"Folk gonna vote for whoever pay them," Carter was quoted as saying.

The conspirators did not end up following through with the plan to trade vodka, but did allegedly trade money and food, determining that "$20 to $40 was too much to pay for one vote ... but was acceptable to pay for the votes of multiple members of a household." In addition to offering goods and money in exchange for votes, the indictment alleges that Hallum and his father even opened unsealed absentee ballots -- and the ones that were cast in favor of his opponent, Kim Felker, were "destroyed" so they wouldn't count.

Hallum received a lopsided landslide in the absentee ballot count, garnering 394 votes to Felker's 67.

"I was horrified," Felker told Fox News about the vodka-for-votes scheme, as she sat on her porch in Crawfordsville, Ark. "This is not a third-world country, this is east Arkansas, and this is something you hear of in another part of the world. ... The people in our district have been duped, really. And we are the ones who are suffering."

Court documents detail Hallum's "absentee ballot strategy," which included submitting absentee ballot applications on behalf of voters, tracking when they were mailed, assisting voters in completing the ballots, and in some cases completing the absentee ballots without regard for the voter's choice.

The fraud was exposed after Felker received a phone message from someone offering her absentee ballots for her race, which is against the law. She reported the call to authorities.

Felker, a retired special education school teacher and farmer's wife, was making her first run for political office at the time. She lost by only eight votes out of 1,772 cast, and told Fox News she would have won the election had it not been stolen from her.

"I think my votes were not turned in," Felker said. "I had always been suspicious of that, but I thought maybe it was only a case of several, but I was shocked."

Felker said the experience has taught her that those who claim there is no voter fraud in the country should "come to my house and talk to me. There is voter fraud."

"The most fundamental rights we enjoy as American citizens include the ability to vote," declared U.S. Attorney Jane Duke, who prosecuted the federal case."Voter fraud schemes ... have the devastating effect of eroding public confidence in elected officials and disenfranchising voters."

"The system is broken," charges Arkansas Republican Rep. Bryan King, who is advocating new measures to ensure the integrity of the election process.

King has waged a campaign for tougher election laws in Arkansas, including voter ID laws, in an effort to change what he says has been a long-standing culture of voter fraud corruption in his state. He is calling for better monitoring of election administrators, prosecutions of voter fraud allegations and mandatory sentences for those convicted of voter fraud crimes.

He also wants the state to establish "a panel of independent judges and prosecutors, because a lot of these prosecutors don't want to prosecute voter fraud because of the political consequences."

He said: "What we had in eastern Arkansas, and some other places in Arkansas, is voter fraud had never been prosecuted, no one was looking, no one was watching. ... If we can't put our faith in the election system, then how can we put our faith in the people that were sent up to represent us? People need to have faith in elections, and that they are being administered fairly."

Tim Humphries, the Arkansas State Board of Elections legal counsel, said "the system was definitely corrupt over there."

"If these people had not been caught, then that certainly impacts the integrity of the election process," he said.

Humphries said the Board takes voter fraud allegations seriously and that cases like this "show that we're vigilant here in Arkansas about these sorts of things."

After pleading guilty to the federal charges in September, Hallum resigned from office, and along with his three co-defendants is expected to be sentenced before the end of the year. He faces the possibility of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.  He did not respond to messages from Fox News and his attorney, Glenn Lovett, declined a request for an interview with Hallum.

In an interview with Memphis Fox13, WHBQ last month, Hallum defended giving voters food, since the election coincided with a flood in his district, and he said people needed help.

He did express regret for other actions, saying, "I took something from them, and that was their trust."

"At the time, I absolutely didn't think me going to get somebody something to eat during a disaster, was wrong," he said. But he admitted that, "As we went along, I definitely started figuring out that we were doing some things that were absolutely wrong and, I didn't stop when I should have."

Hallum also apologized to his fellow legislators at the Arkansas Capitol, writing them that he accepts responsibility and "took some bad advice that led to some bad decisions on my part ... It has been the greatest honor of my life to serve with each of you and our state is a better place for what you have done."

Despite his guilty plea and removal from office, Hallum is still on the ballot for November's election -- running against Green Party candidate Fred Smith. He resigned after the deadline to remove his name, but if he wins again, election officials say he will not take office and a special election will likely be held to fill the post.

Felker said she has no plans to run again anytime soon. What especially stings, is that when she votes, she is reminded of her father, who served in World War II, and of her uncle, who was a prisoner of war.

"When I cast my vote, that's who I think about and when I look at a ballot, that is what I think about, and that is what got me when I found out that my opponent and his father had torn up my votes," she laments.

"I would not sell my vote for anything."

She has a message for all Americans about voter fraud: "Don't just sit back and take it. If something is not right in our voting system, and it is messing with our democracy, you've got to step up and do something about it, because that's your most basic right, your vote. If that is compromised, then you are going to see democracy disappearing."

If you suspect voter fraud where you live, tell us:

Meredith Orban contributed to this report.