in Houston, Texas

Texas' screwy election laws: Voters in Texas claim unconventional residences; which cases amount to fraud?

Wednesday, Sep 19, 2012, 11:32AM CST
By Steve Miller
polling place

In early 2010, Alan John Lesselyong moved from his Dallas apartment to a FEMA trailer in the middle of 1,000 undeveloped acres in Denton County.

He did so at the behest of a group of developers to establish a board and approve $400 million in bonds that will be paid off by future residents, a hefty responsibility for Lesselyong, the sole voter in Denton County Municipal Utility District #7.

Lesselyong’s voter registration today shows the same address in Pilot Point, and he says he goes to the property frequently, though the trailer is long gone. His voting address is an empty lot, but he lives, he said, in the downtown Dallas apartment.

His case highlights the range of interpretation of Texas’ residency law, which defines “residence” as a place “to which one intends to return after any temporary absence.” While Lesselyong has never been challenged about his registration, seven Woodlands voters, who also moved temporarily into a utility district for voting purposes, are under indictment by the state’s top lawyer for voter fraud.

Lesselyong registered to vote April 28 and 10 days later, on May 8, he served as election judge at a polling place behind his trailer.

“I opened the place in the morning and was there all day,” said the 33-year-old Lesselyong. “I got the equipment, followed the instructions and when the polls were open, I voted.”

No one else came by because Lesselyong was the only person registered in the precinct. By a landslide vote of 1-0, every ballot measure under consideration was approved. By the same margin, each of the board candidates swept into office.

All the district needed was a tenant.

“I met the directors at a dinner they held for us all,” Lesselyong said.

A few months after the election, two people – an 18-year-old woman and a 24-year old man – moved into a trailer not far from the one Lesselyong used to set up their own district. The two voters in the Denton County Municipal Utility District #7, renamed the Four Seasons Municipal Ranch Utility District, approved $292 million in bonds for roads and water infrastructure.

While Lesselyong was holding a one-person election behind his FEMA trailer, a group of 10 Woodlands voters were also getting ready to vote, encamped at a hotel inside the boundaries of their utility district. The Woodlands voters said they were frustrated that the board members had not been challenged in an election for a decade.

The Woodlands voters initially prevailed, electing a slate of new board members. The results were later overturned in court.

Seven of the voters have been charged with voter fraud by the state Attorney General’s office. Some of them say they believe that the charges stem from a well-connected cabal of influencers, beginning with state Sen. Tommy Williams, who aided lawyers filing the fraud complaint against the accused.

The state’s case is based on residency: “Defendant voted in the May 8, 2010 Woodlands Road Utility District Board of Directors election, when he knew he did not reside in the precinct in which he voted,” the indictment states.

The ringleader of the group, Adrian Heath, has said he got the idea from reading about nine Tarrant County voters who were registered to an office building, figuring that if an office building could work for voting purposes in the eyes of the state, so could a hotel. The Tarrant voters were registered to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s address at Alliance Airport, although they did not live there full-time. Three of the nine had homes in other parts of Tarrant and Denton County.

When the matter was called to the attention of the Secretary of State’s voting division, a spokesman said the residency requirement can be determined “by the voter.”

Lesselyong was in full compliance with the law as were the DEA-registered voters. He paid rent to live in the trailer.

Recent efforts to change the state’s residency law have stalled.

Jane NelsonJane Nelson

In April 2011, state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, filed a bill to address residency requirements in municipal utility districts, requiring a one-year residency before being eligible to vote.

In a hearing, Nelson looked with exasperation to her fellow lawmakers for some relief.

“You understand the problem,” she said in a hearing of the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations. “The people I represent are very discouraged. They think all of this is being done behind curtains. I want more transparency, and I don’t know how to do that. “

Joe Allen, of Allen Boone Humphries Robinson, a mega law firm that represents numerous special districts in the state, called Nelson’s legislation “a very damaging bill.”

He said developers are buying undeveloped land, “and there are no residents, and you simply have to have some initial votes to meet the constitutional requirement to have an election in order to vote these bonds,” Allen said at the hearing. “There’s no political subdivision in the state that are more scrutinized than these districts.”

He said any changes to the laws, including voting residency requirements, “will hinder home builders and prices in the state.”

The bill died quickly.

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said in 2010 that residency laws and voting were “something that needs to be looked at.”

 

“This is an issue that needs to be resolved, and I hope it doesn’t get politicized if anyone tries,” Bonnen said at the time.

This week, Bonnen said he was finalizing his legislative goals for the coming session.

“But to be candid, I’m a little limited this session,” he said, as he is wrapping up an appointment as chair of the Sunset Advisory Commission and has a number of other issues before him. 

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

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Photo of polling place sign by flickr user tychay, used via a Creative Commons license.

Comments
Adrian Heath
Wednesday, 09/19/2012 - 11:51PM

You can club Greg Abbott over the head with stuff like this but it will make little difference. Abbott is serving his constituents - lobbyists, bond attorneys, developers and others who shovel money his way. Yeah that's it. Good old Greg Abbott - the Shovel ready AG . What a hypocrite who chases down innocent people and lets real outrages continue.

Adrian Heath
Wednesday, 09/19/2012 - 11:52PM

Did I say, Thanks Texas Watchdog!!!!

Granny
Sunday, 09/23/2012 - 12:17PM

Our residency for voting laws need to be changed to stop this sort of thing from happening again. There needs to be at least a one year residence requirement in order to vote in any district in Texas. We do not need DC or Chicago politics in Texas!

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