DEL RIO, Texas - In a courtroom here, Dora Gonzalez confessed.
She had intentionally hampered the voting process by mishandling more than 100 absentee ballots in the March 2 Democratic primary in Val Verde County. By 29 votes, her employer, County Commissioner Jesus Ortiz, had won the primary, effectively handing him re-election in this Democratic county. Challenger Gus Flores alleged voter fraud and sued.
A judge ruled in August that Gonzalez' activity on Ortiz' behalf was illegal and ordered a new primary. Under close scrutiny, the election was won by Flores with a 306-vote margin.
In many ways, the case is typical of voter fraud in South Texas: Many violators are not charged -- Gonzalez wasn't either --- because prosecutors complain the cases are hard to prove. When they are prosecuted, the penalties are so small they don't deter the crime. So, with payment as "get out the vote" workers for candidates, the vote harvesters continue to hijack absentee ballots by sending applications on behalf of voters, arriving on their doorstep as the ballots arrive and coaching their votes.
"It's almost like it's OK because it's always been done," said Rudy Montalvo, election administrator in Starr County, which hugs the Mexican border just northwest of McAllen. He's done battle with his own Dora Gonzalezes, to little avail.
"We've had four people indicted, and all of them got a plea bargain. And that's probation, usually," he said. "In the end, the hammer's not hard enough."
Gonzalez testified that she worked the March primary for a number of local candidates, as well as Congressman Ciro Rodriguez, Texas state Sen. Carlos Uresti and gubernatorial candidate Bill White. Since politiqueras' activity is marshaled through local party players, it is unlikely that anyone on White or Uresti's level would ever know of their work.
Gonzalez told the court that Ortiz had given her a stack of applications for mail-in ballots for potential voters and 100 stamps.
Many of those voters said in depositions that Gonzalez took their completed ballots. Most said that Gonzalez did not attempt to influence their votes, but others did. "She filled them out so I could sign, and then she took the envelope," one voter said.
And Gonzalez' reason for assisting these candidates and voters?
"Because I'm interested in my community, and I'm interested in having good people help the community," Gonzalez replied, according to an account in the Del Rio News Herald.
LITTLE ATTENTION FROM AUSTIN
Shortly after Texas Watchdog began its series of stories on voter fraud in March, state Sen. Florence Shapiro said in an interview, “I will be filing legislation to deal with this.”
Now, with bills being pre-filed and the session’s January start just weeks away, Shapiro is vague as to just what can be done.
“We’ve talked a lot about it through another senator who wanted to do something about it,” Shapiro said, although she couldn’t recall the other senator’s name. “And other people in the senate are looking at filing some of these bills.”
“In Austin, anyone from San Antonio and above thinks that this is the Wild West, so why pay attention,” said state Rep. Aaron Peña, whose District 40 takes in a large swath of the region. “They look back over 300 years of history, and they see that now they’re still doing the same thing with voting in South Texas.”
The most recent statewide effort to address mail-in ballot fraud, a 2003 bill by former Democratic state Rep. Steve Wolens, enhanced penalties for certain activities regarding mail-in ballots.
“The first thing that happened when I put the bill out there is that people came out saying it would disenfranchise voters, like the elderly and the disabled,” Wolens said. “And my response was, ‘Poppycock. This is aimed at the illegal harvesting of voters by paid opportunists who were themselves disenfranchising the elderly and the disabled.'”
In 2005, Robert Talton, a staunch conservative Republican state representative from Pasadena, moved to one-up Wolens. His House bill would have barred anyone from assisting more than one voter in an election, with some provisional caveats for close family. The bill died in committee.
ELECTIONS CHIEFS FRUSTRATED
But the practice of vote harvesting has never relented. State law regarding the mail-in ballot is fairly simple: If a person is mailing in a ballot, as Gonzalez did, that person must sign the ballot.
"A person other than the voter who deposits the carrier envelope in the mail or with a common or contract carrier must provide the person's signature, printed name, and residence address on the reverse side of the envelope," the law says.
The rule for signing a ballot for someone else - the signer is called a witness - is also explicit:
"The witness must state on the document or paper the name, in printed form, of the person who cannot sign. ... The witness must affix the witness's own signature to the document or paper and state the witness's own name, in printed form, near the signature. The witness must also state the witness's residence address unless the witness is an election officer, in which case the witness must state the witness's official title."
Vote harvesters, who can assist voters legally, are entitled to as many ballots as they need or want, and can even request them at the Secretary of State’s website.
“They get the mail-in ballot, then the fraud comes in,” said Pam Hill, election administrator in San Patricio County. She’s been in office since January 2006, and the practice has grown since that time, she said.
The number of mail-in ballots cast varies wildly, depending on the contest, she said. "It could be 1,500 mail in ballots, or 100."
Hill and other election administrators from South Texas have been meeting informally for the past couple years to talk about voter fraud issues unique to the region. They hope to get support from lawmakers, but so far the group has had little luck. And to make things worse, two elected officials who attended a small conference with the election officials in Kingsville in August, Solomon Ortiz, Jr., and Abel Herrero, lost their re-election bids in November.
“We just aren’t sure what to do now,” said Roy Ruiz, election administrator in Kenedy County.
A legislative election committee report is due out at the start of the year and contains nothing about addressing mail-in ballot fraud, according to the committee's office. It will, though, contain plenty about the need for a voter ID measure that has failed in previous sessions. Several Republican lawmakers prefiled voter ID measures last month.
DA: CASES HARD TO PROSECUTE
In the politiquera world, they are legends: names like Elvira Rios, Gloria Barajas, Cynthia Lopez, Dora Gonzalez and Zaida Bueno. For years, they have been known as the go-to people for South Texas candidates.These mostly female vote harvesters work the apartment complexes, the nursing homes and any other living areas for the elderly and disabled. The compensation varies, from a deal that gives them perhaps $1 per ballot to a wider-ranging proposal that could pay hundreds of dollars for supervising a team of politiqueras.
They are helping, most say, enabling a person to exercise his or her constitutional right to vote. Some like Gonzalez say they are volunteers and make no money, and are only in it for the good of the community. Others are documented as paid in campaign finance reports, sometimes by local district attorneys and judges -- the same officials who are responsible for determining if the vote-harvesting has crossed over into illegal activity.
Rene Guerra, district attorney in Hidalgo County, saw a grand jury hand up 43 counts of voter fraud on a number of individuals -- some who he admits may have helped him win elections -- in a massive 2005 case presented by the Texas Rangers. As the years went by, he dropped all but one of the cases. Nothing there, he said.
In a county that is legendary for its politiquera activity, Guerra said he has never been able to prove voter fraud.
“It’s almost impossible to prove that,” Guerra said. “If I pay you $10 or a hamburger to vote for Obama or Bush, and you go vote, how do you prove it?"
The witnesses to the crime don't help, either.
"As some dementia sets into the elderly block of voters they’re prone to contradict themselves in statements. It will be the killing shot for prosecution," he said.
'A FAIR ELECTION. FINALLY.'
The state Attorney General’s office has proclaimed war on people like those vote harvesters, though the office can only act when its assistance is requested by a local law enforcement agency.
Still, the AG this year successfully wrapped up 10 cases of voter-related issues, including mail-in ballot fraud, and filed nine more cases that have not yet been heard. Bueno, who explained how voter fraud works in a Texas Watchdog story this year, pleaded guilty in June to one count of mishandling mail-in ballots along with two others in Jim Wells County. All those convicted received the same punishment: a year of probation, a 180-day suspended jail sentence, a $200 fine and 40 hours of community work.
Few ever get jail time, even with confessions.
“Nothing happens,” said Lucy Lopez, an alderman in Taft, Texas. “And so people get to the point where, why even say anything about it?”
Gus Flores, the county commissioner who pushed his case in Val Verde County, said the only way for him to disrupt the entrenched voter fraud system was to take it into a courtroom. It cost him tens of thousands of dollars, he said. “But that election was stolen from me, and we had to prove it."
Even the local Democratic party was against him, Flores said, and together with League of United Latin American Citizens tried to prevent the do-over election, saying the date of Sept. 25 did not allow adequate time for voter participation.
Diana Salgado, chair of the local Democratic party, said the judge's verdict enabling a new election "was a poor decision. ... There's much more to this story than was presented." She did not return a follow-up call.
“It never mattered,” Flores said. “They knew the election was wrong, but it’s the way its been done here for many years. And it reaches all the way to the top, the top officials.
“But in the end, we had a fair election. Finally."
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or email@example.com.
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Photo of someone voting by mail by flickr user droob, used via a Creative Commons license.