There was a time when vote fraud was so pervasive in Clay County that a lot of honest people saw no reason to vote, said Ken Bolin, pastor of Manchester Baptist Church. “They knew it was already bought and paid for,” Bolin said of local races. Vote-buying is deeply rooted in Eastern Kentucky’s political culture, helping to make the region a hot spot for federal public-corruption cases. From 2002 through 2011, there were 237 public-corruption convictions in the federal Eastern District of Kentucky, compared to 65 in the western district, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. It wasn’t the first decade in which the eastern half of the state had one of the highest rates of corruption convictions per capita in the United States.
Chronic poverty and cynicism about government help explain the history of vote fraud. Control over scarce jobs by local politicians also has played a role, allowing power brokers to influence elections with cash or threats. And with small populations and many people related through blood or marriage, kinship and friendship have long created potentially compromising relationships between officials and criminals.
Gary W. Potter and Larry K. Gaines, then police-studies professors at Eastern Kentucky University, said in a 1992 paper that 25 of the 28 crime networks they identified in five Eastern Kentucky counties used corrupt relationships with local police and officials in their illegal businesses, which included selling drugs, growing marijuana, and providing gambling and prostitution.