in Houston, Texas

Mail-in ballot measures haven't topped lawmakers' list of priorities for voting legislation

by flickr user _4cryingoutloud
Monday, Apr 19, 2010, 10:35PM CST
By Steve Miller

Former state Rep. Steve Wolens felt stung for years after seeing a man, posing as a minister, soliciting mail-in votes on behalf of his primary race opponent from the disabled and aged in the mid-1980s. He found out who that faux-minister was and turned him in. And won the race.

The Dallas Democrat was reminded of the potential abuse of elderly voters via the state’s mail-in ballot process again when his wife, Laura Miller, was running for mayor of Dallas in 2001. Mail-in ballot fraud accusations surfaced against her opponent but were never proven. She prevailed in the election.

Wolens is no longer in Austin but recalls how his House Bill 54, setting out penalties for appropriating ballots and otherwise abusing the mail-in voter process, was attacked when he proposed it in 2003 during the 78th Legislature.

“It was a terrible fight,” he recalls today. “People were asking me what kind of Democrat I was, they were telling me I was disenfranchising voters. But the bill was aimed at the illegal harvesting of votes by paid opportunists who were disenfranchising the elderly and the disabled."

Today, mail-in ballot voter fraud continues to hamper local elections around the state because of the murky definition of the laws and modest penalties.

Getting anything done regarding voting laws requires approval from the U.S. Department of Justice. And most lawmakers find the process a no-win situation politically, as Wolens found out.

Wolen's bill, which became law in September 2003, was the last substantial action passed addressing the issue of voter fraud in Texas. While some, including Wolens, say the bill had a “cooling effect” on the practice of mail-in ballot fraud, its presence in elections has not been eliminated.

The most prevalent form of the practice involves paid agents of a candidate who order mail-in ballots en masse for elderly and otherwise infirm voters.

Called politiqueros in the Hispanic community where the practice is documented most often, these agents take the ballots to the voters, and coaches them to cast their ballots for the agent's candidate. Or the agent simply fills out the ballot in the voters' names against their will.

There is no limit on how many mail-in ballot applications a person may have; state law requires they be provided upon request.

Jerry MaddenMADDEN

“One of the things we do need to look at is how do we check the signatures on the mail-in ballot application with the actual ballot,” said Jerry Madden, a Republican state lawmaker from Plano and former elections committee member. But he's not convinced of the urgency. He voted for House Bill 54, “and we put [that] into that law, and it appears to be working.”

Since the law was implemented, complaints to the state attorney general's office have gone up and there are more frequent investigations by district attorneys and the state attorney general's office. But in terms of quelling a problem, others are not convinced that something with a legacy as deep as vote harvesting can be stopped with one bill and its mild penalties.

“Without a doubt we have a problem,” said state Rep. Aaron Peña, whose district includes most of Hidalgo County in South Texas. Over his four victorious campaigns, he’s been approached by vote harvesters, or politiqueros, with promises of vote delivery.

When he refused, he said he was told he was courting “political trouble” and making himself a target.

"This is the kind of culture there is," said Peña, a Democrat who voted for HB54.

Other politicians in South Texas have reported similar experiences. Rene Guerra, now criminal district attorney in Hidalgo County, tells of a politiquero approaching him in this December 2002 article appearing in the American Bar Association’s magazine, ABA Journal:

“…A man approached me and said, ‘I can guarantee you 300 votes, but I need a new engine for my car.' I said, ‘I don’t have any money, but you can go to my opponent.’ That was my first taste of the politiqueros. Since then, they’ve started charging big bucks for ballots and become more blatant, careless and criminal.”

Continues on page 2: 'Austin doesn't care'

More Stories in this category
Mail-in fraud hearing in Brownsville, TX on Monday
Friday, 04/23/2010 - 03:19PM

Mr. Miller,

On Monday (April 26th) there will be a hearing into election fraud involving mail-in ballots in Brownsville, Texas. Attorney Ruben Pena, a runoff candidate for Cameron County Commissioner in elections last week, won both the early and election day votes yet lost to his opponent Ernie Hernandez's 240 mail-in ballots.

There was another issue involving a broken lock on a ballot box arriving two hours after all of the other votes had been counted on Election night. The difference in votes was only 40 at that point. The election judge's excuse what that he had to use the restroom. Anyway, ballots, votes and materials were impounded the day after the election and Monday will be the first hearing into potential fraud.

Hope you can make it to the hearing, it will be at 9am at the Cameron County Courthouse in Brownsville.

Wednesday, 05/12/2010 - 09:00PM

During the last session of the Texas Legislature, Senator Tommy Williams(R-The Woodlands) led a vigorous fight to clean up voter fraud. The near rabid furry of the opposition from the Democrats was astounding. They accused the backers of the bill of everything from being hooded KKK terrorists in business suits to being for a return of the poll tax, which for decades was used to keep poor black Texans from voting (when the Democrats ran this state). The effort even cost the senator to go from being hailed by Texas Monthly as a leader to being one of the worst legislators. As Rep. Wolens's fellow Democrats pointed out to him, a "Good Democrat" will violate the "purity of the election" that every poll worker swears to, if it means keeping power in their hands, no matter the true will of the people. As Senator Williams and Representative Wolens have demonstrated; "The price of liberty is eternal villigence"

Ashton Jones
Friday, 06/22/2012 - 10:49AM

I am from VW Brownsville TX and I have trouble finding some really good places to buy a reliable vehicle. Anyone agree?

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