in Houston, Texas
Did you hear the one about the voter registered 'behind the tree'? South Texas elections chiefs detail voting irregularities to state reps
Tuesday, Aug 17, 2010, 09:27PM CST
By Steve Miller
tree

KINGSVILLE, Texas - Two state lawmakers will consider filing bills related to voting issues presented to them by a group of South Texas elections administrators Tuesday. State Reps. Solomon Ortiz Jr. and Ryan Guillen heard tales of mail-in ballot fraud, illegal immigrants using voter registration cards as a form of identification, and the difficult task of keeping voter’s residences current.

“I had no idea things were this bad,” Ortiz said at the end of a two-hour meeting in which he and Guillen joined six elections administrators.

 

Ortiz and Guillen's interest gives hope to the elections chiefs, who say they have complained of elections irregularities and outright fraud for years with little response from Austin.

 

Yvonne Ramon, elections administrator in Hidalgo County, told of sending a voter registration card which bore the address of “behind the tree” near a specific address, while Roy Ruiz, elections administrator in Kenedy County, sent one to the address of “half mile from the post office.”

 

Another administrator, Rudy Montalvo from Starr County, said he has found duplicates and worse, sometimes errors that would allow voters to get six or seven ballots for an election.

 

"I called the (Secretary of State) to ask what to do when one voter appeared to have six different locations, and they said, 'You have to mail the ballots,'" Montalvo said. He said calls to the attorney general's office and the Texas Ethics Commission were fruitless, despite his feeling that illegal voting would occur if he followed the law.

 

“And I have 13 people registered to a one-bedroom, one-bathroom house,” added Ruiz.

 

Voter residency laws in Texas make residency a state of mind, a sometimes creative leap that ends up in court.

 

Ramon asked for legislation that would allow matching 911 residence records with voter rolls.

 

“Right now, all we can do is send cards to the voter when we notice a difference between 911 and our information,” Ramon said. “We aren’t allowed to change the records. But we’d like to be able to as long as the addresses are in the same precinct.”

 

The murky residency laws play into the use of voter registration cards being used as IDs for purposes other than voting and the ability of illegal immigrants to vote, the officials said. Why not allow elections administrators to use the same criteria for issuing a voter ID as for a driver’s license, that is, require three forms of identification? 

 

Ramon said undocumented immigrants can get a voter registration card, which they can use to get a driver’s license before obtaining citizenship.

 

“There is a system they can work to get a driver’s license, and we are part of it by law,” she said.

 

The mail-in ballot process is also a mess, the elections officials agreed, from giving out batches of hundreds of mail-in ballot applications to individuals to illegal activity in nursing homes by politiqueras, or vote harvesters.

 

One official told of 800 mail-in ballots returned with the same postage meter stamp on them. Others agreed that mail-in ballot fraud was rampant and went unchecked because no one had the resources.

 

“I went to fraud class when the AG’s office held it,” Montalvo said. “And I finally got them to come down and help me with the mail-in ballot fraud. They got eight indictments. I was all excited. And then it ended up with three months probation and a $500 fine for each of them.”

 

“Same in Jim Wells County,” said Pearlie Jo Valadez, that county’s elections chief.

 

Ortiz acknowledged there was voter fraud in South Texas and at one point asked the officials, “Would you be in favor of tougher penalties?”

 

Yes, they all nodded.

 

“In 2003, we increased penalties on the mail-in ballot fraud,” Guillen noted. “But most of that range ends up in the purview of the prosecutors, and in most of these cases it goes to a plea deal.”

 

Just getting someone to prosecute the crimes is difficult, said Pamela Hill, elections head in San Patricio County.

 

“And the investigators from the attorney general’s office are in la-la land. They just don’t have the expertise,” Montalvo said.

 

“And you could argue that the attorney general is political, too,” Ortiz, a Democrat, said. State Attorney General Greg Abbott is a Republican.

 

The administrators wondered if holding a candidate accountable for the actions of campaign assistants might discourage illegal activity.

 

As the meeting ended, though, it seemed that any solutions would have to first pass through a political filter.

 

“So what I’m hearing here is that voter ID won’t solve anything,” Ortiz proclaimed near the end. He promised that voter ID would be a contentious and partisan issue in the upcoming session, similar to last, when a plan to require voters to show two forms of ID or a photo ID failed.

 

“Voter ID would certainly not solve our problems, but if someone were to ask me if I were in favor, I would say yes,” Ramon said. ID is required for publicly-funded medical programs, for a Social Security card, for a passport. “Why not for this?” she asked.

 

Ruiz, too, said he favored stiffer voter ID requirements.

 

The meeting broke up with promises of another get-together after the November election, as prefiling of bills for the 82nd legislative session begins in December.

 

“This is the closest we’ve come to actually getting some help,” Ruiz said after the meeting. He and his fellow South Texas elections officials have been meeting for two years, commiserating over the unique issues they face. Politiqueras gone bad. Residences behind trees. Cookouts held by candidates next door to polling locations.

 

“Just getting someone here to listen is a good step,” Ruiz continued. “It’s the best shot we’ve got.”

 

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

 

Photo of 'Vikki behind a Tree' by flickr user zeddyorg, used via a Creative Commons license.

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