Charlestown mother investigated for voter fraud after helping disabled son vote

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    In a quiet moment between the responsibilities of caring for her son Justin, Dee Milliken, of Charlestown, holds his hand Tuesday, June 11, 2019. "Whether he wants to vote again, that's his choice," she said. "If he wants to go, we'll go." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • Dee Milliken speaks with her son Justin Milliken, 19, at their home in Charlestown on Tuesday. James PattersonValley News

  • Dee Milliken walk with her son Justin, who has cerebral palsy, in Charlestown on Tuesday. James M. Patterson / Valley News

Valley News
Published: 6/12/2019 5:05:39 PM

When Dee Milliken took her 19-year-old son to vote in November, she hoped the experience would strengthen his ties to the community.

Justin Milliken, who has cerebral palsy and a seizure condition and uses a wheelchair, is nonverbal and largely communicates through grunts and facial expressions. But his mother assumed that with a little help, he could participate in elections.

More than six months later, she’s no longer sure that’s the case.

Poll workers last fall made the process difficult, Dee Milliken said, and have questioned whether Justin Milliken was mentally capable of casting a ballot. Then last Friday, she received a call from the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office from an official investigating whether she committed voter fraud seven months ago by helping her son fill out the ballot, she said.

“I’m just shocked,” Dee Milliken said in a phone interview this week. “I feel like my community is against me. I feel like I don’t belong. I feel heartbroken.”

Dee Milliken said their preparation for voting day began weeks in advance, when she and Justin attended a candidates forum. Later, they hosted would-be lawmakers in their home and discussed how important issues could affect their family.

Justin Milliken attends school at Cedarcrest Center for Children with Disabilities in Keene, which describes itself as serving children with “complex medical and developmental needs.” The Valley News wrote about him in 2013, when community members were encouraged to send Christmas cards to his Douglas Street home.

When the 2018 election came, the Millikens traveled to the polls at the Charlestown Senior Center, with the paperwork needed to register Justin to vote already filled out.

The first sign of trouble came when a poll worker initially declined to allow Dee Milliken into the voting booth with her son to help him fill out his ballot. Milliken said she explained to the election official how her son communicates.

“He doesn’t have a yes or no. It’s a grunt or he looks away,” she recalled saying.

Eventually, the poll worker relented and allowed her to accompany her son, she said.

However, the Millikens weren’t allowed into a polling area specifically set aside for people with disabilities because they wouldn’t be using the touchscreen system designed to assist the visually impaired, Dee Milliken said. Instead, they were told to find a spot in a standing ballot booth, which she said was distracting for her son.

No official mentioned anything about voter fraud when they turned in Justin Milliken’s ballot, she said, and mother and son went outside afterward to take photos and celebrate the milestone.

That’s why Dee Milliken was surprised, she said, when Richard Tracy, chief investigator of the Attorney General’s Election Law Unit, called last week to ask questions.

The investigator explained that someone on the town’s Supervisors of the Checklist had raised concern about the vote and questioned whether Justin Milliken was capable of understanding the ballot, Dee Milliken said.

Kate Spiner, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, declined to comment on the matter Tuesday.

“I’m still in shock. All weekend, that’s what I’ve been thinking about,” Dee Milliken said. “Do you have to have a certain IQ to vote? What about if you have a stroke or Alzheimer’s?”

There are only a few basic qualifications required to vote in New Hampshire, Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan said on Tuesday. Voters must be 18 years old, a U.S. citizen and domiciled in the town or ward they wish to vote in, he said.

“Beyond that, we recognize that there are some people that may have difficulty voting,” Scanlan said.

Voters with visual impairments are invited to use touchscreen devices at the polls, and those who are unable to use the equipment are allowed to have an aide or family member mark their ballot manually.

The Disability Rights Center of New Hampshire also helps disabled people navigate the polls, though a spokesperson declined this week to comment on the Milliken case because it is part of an ongoing investigation.

Scanlan said moderators have some discretion to determine if a person is mentally competent enough to vote.

“When the moderator may have some doubt, we suggest to the moderator that they make an attempt to communicate with the voter,” Scanlan said.

That attempt, he said, could be as simple as asking whether the person’s favorite ice cream is chocolate, vanilla or strawberry. While town moderators are charged with handling those difficult situations at the polls, Scanlan said, there’s no New Hampshire law or regulation that specifically gives an election official the ability to deny a person the right to vote based on competency.

He also encouraged any moderator facing a similar situation to either err on the side of caution and allow the person a ballot or call the Secretary of State’s Office for advice.

Charlestown largely followed Scanlan’s guidance in November, Town Moderator Gabriel St. Pierre said.

“Acting on the advice of the Secretary of State Bill Gardner, we aired on the right to vote to ensure that the process worked for them,” St. Pierre said on Tuesday.

He said the Millikens have an established way of communicating and for him to determine whether that is sufficient is “akin to impersonating a handwriting specialist.”

“So in that situation, we ensured the right to vote, documented the extraordinary circumstances and continued on with the process,” St. Pierre said.

Charlestown Town Clerk Patty Chaffee declined to comment on Tuesday and referred questions to Nancy Houghton, a supervisor of the checklist. Messages requesting comment from Houghton were not returned on Tuesday.

Voter fraud carries penalties ranging from a $5,000 fine to several years in jail. Dee Milliken said she doesn’t think she or her son did anything wrong but is troubled about even being investigated in the matter. She said she was told the Attorney General’s Office expects to complete its investigation in the next week.

“I just think the town needs to be educated and obviously parents need to be educated and lawmakers need to be educated about what this means and how it affects people,” she said.

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