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False claim of voter fraud concerns from a Berkshire County sheriff candidate prompts rebuke from Pittsfield city clerk

A stone building with a colonnade.
Josh Landes

The Pittsfield, Massachusetts city clerk is crying foul in reaction to a social media post from a candidate in the race for Berkshire County Sheriff alleging that the state is monitoring voter fraud in the city.

The Democratic primary race for Berkshire County Sheriff, which wraps up with Tuesday’s election, between two-term incumbent Tom Bowler and challenger Alf Barbalunga has been a punishing one.

As the Chief Probation Officer of the Southern Berkshire District Court attempts to win the next six-year term as sheriff, his campaign has been defined by its bruising, full-court press approach. In a since-deleted post to the Barbalunga For Sheriff Facebook page, the campaign issued a warning to voters claiming that “the Secretary of the Commonwealth, Elections Division, is watching the Berkshire County District Attorney and Sheriff election closely, due to complaints of voter fraud, specifically in Pittsfield in 2019.”

A screenshot of the since-deleted Barbalunga For Sheriff Facebook post that started the controversy.
Josh Landes
A screenshot of the since-deleted Barbalunga For Sheriff Facebook post that started the controversy.

The post included a screenshot of a commentor on a local blog claiming they intended to vote multiple times in the primary. Thursday night, a press release went out from Pittsfield City Clerk Michele Benjamin denying the allegations. While she didn’t specifically name Barbalunga, the release quoted his campaign’s statements about voter fraud repeatedly.

“According to me and the state elections commission, that is a false accusation," said Benjamin. “I just want to let the voters know that the elections that we helped produce in Pittsfield are run fairly, they're accurate, and they're honest, and the people can trust all of us and the team that I have working behind me that these are actual accounts of what the voters voted on, on election day, or early voting.”

In 2019, then-city councilor Melissa Mazzeo raised similar allegations after losing the mayoral race to incumbent Linda Tyer — a result confirmed by a recount. Through a public records request, WAMC showed that the commonwealth’s Elections Division had dismissed Mazzeo’s charges. The candidate – after teasing a legal challenge – ultimately backed down. Benjamin characterized the newest round of voter fraud allegations as irresponsible.

“It's disappointing, not only to me and my team, but the 84 election workers who work hard on election day, and even before, helping to get this election done fair and accurately," she told WAMC. "It's just it's disheartening. And it's disappointing that people have to cast stones that don't need to be cast.”

In response to Benjamin’s press release, the Barbalunga campaign issued one of its own that both acknowledged the inaccuracy of the original charges of voter fraud while defending the move as “a sincere attempt to ensure the integrity of our elections.”

It also acknowledged that Barbalunga had heard directly from the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office that the 2019 allegations were unfounded, that the campaign could not possibly have verified the blog comment it shared, and that a volunteer had made the original post.

“As you may or may not know, I've never been on social media in my life," the candidate told WAMC. "To this day I've never posted. But you know, at the end of the day, we take responsibility as the leader of the campaign.”

Despite admitting its inherent inaccuracy, Barbalunga maintains that the original post was appropriate in a WAMC interview.

“It’s not like it’s out of left field," he said. "There's been a number of years of voter fraud in different capacities, so I think the intent was pure. Checked in with the Secretary of the Commonwealth's office to see what ability they have to mitigate that type of behavior, if any.”

WAMC asked if Barbalunga was concerned about sowing doubt about the veracity of the election process in Berkshire County.

“I'm not concerned because that's not what we're doing," he said. "You know, you have people that spin this on social media for really, one reason, it’s to try to make it advantageous for them. You could call it, like, 11th hour, you know, shenanigans and drama. As always Josh, it’s to take away from the reality of the actual platforms.”

Barbalunga pledged to respect the outcome of the primary vote.

“If I lose on September 6th or 7th, my first call will be to Tom and congratulate him and ask him how I can help him in my capacity as an ex-candidate or Chief Probation Officer, if I lose," said Barbalunga. "If I win, same call. I'm going to say hey, congratulations, at least for us it’s business, it wasn’t personal, and ask him if he's able to help us on a transition plan. Zero excuses. That's why I personally like it. You either win or you lose and you accept those results and you move on with your life. And getting back to what you asked, we accept the results. We know the City of Pittsfield clerk personally, we feel she's a very credible person, confident with their job. And that's probably half the votes out of Berkshire County. So we have no issues there whatsoever.”

Early voting in the primary ends Friday. Election day is Tuesday.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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