MATHIS, Texas --- South Texas is rife with agents from local political camps who prosper by organizing mail-in ballot fraud, elections administrators and other observers in the region say, even after a state-level push to curb the wrongdoing.
The office of state Attorney General Greg Abbott has several open investigations into the practice of shepherding mail-in ballots, mostly in the name of elderly voters. But perpetrators leave a sparse paper trail, election officials say, and the potential five-figure earnings for local operatives far outweigh any punishment levied for committing fraud, typically a misdemeanor.
“It’s a racket,” said Nicole Perez, general manager of the Alice Echo-News Journal, a daily newspaper that has chronicled voting malfeasance in the region for years. A canvasser can earn as much as $30,000 during a political season, Perez said, by walking elderly and infirm voters through the mail-in ballot process, coaching their vote for the favored candidate and helping those voters sign, seal and deliver that ballot.
Perez led her newsroom in a 2008 investigation of checking each mail-in ballot in two counties, lining up the signature on file for each voter with the signatures on the request form and return form for the mail-in ballot.
The newspaper found numerous inconsistencies in the voting process for the March 2008 primary in Jim Wells County. Findings included unaccounted for mail-in ballots; duplicate, and in some cases, triplicate, mail-in ballot applications for one person; and some applications that cited disability as the reason for voting by mail when the voter had no disability.
The newspaper's stories coincided with a state AG's investigation, but despite the newspaper's interviews and documentation of seemingly blatant abuses of the voting process, only three minor charges have been filed so far.
The current penalties for committing the fraud -- in the same penalty class as first-offense shoplifting -- are doing little to discourage the practice. Despite cautionary reports from elected leaders in Austin, lawmakers have failed to address the issue of a tainted mail-in ballot process.
On the horizon, though, is a consortium of South Texas elections administrators who plan to take their concerns about voter fraud to the statehouse during the next legislative session. Elections administrators in 10 counties -- Willacy, Kenedy, Jim Wells, Cameron, Duval, Hidalgo, Webb, Nueces, San Patricio and Starr -- are passing on complaints from the voters.
“The elderly are finally speaking up,” said Pam Hill, elections administrator for San Patricio County and a member of the consortium. “We don’t know how many years it’s been going on ... but they’re saying, ‘Someone is coming and taking my ballot, and they’re voting for me.’ And that is their biggest complaint. And of course, that is illegal.”