in Houston, Texas
'Austin doesn't care' about mail-in ballot malfeasance, elections administrator says
Monday, Apr 19, 2010, 04:40PM CST
By Steve Miller

Continued from page 1.

In preparation for the convening of the 80th Legislature in 2007, the House Committee on Elections prepared a report that asserted that "most allegations of election fraud that appear in the news or result in indictments relate to early voting by mail ballots.”

The report referred to an investigation taking place at the time in the tiny South Texas enclave of Duval County concerning a 2006 primary election in which half the ballots cast were mail-in. The election saw a 57 percent voter turnout, as opposed to 8 percent statewide.

The report concluded that lawmakers in the upcoming session should "review the need to add, enhance or reassess the effectiveness of criminal penalties provided by the Election Code. The Legislature should provide educational assistance for prosecutors and election officials to improve understanding on criminal violations of the Election Code.”

In the session, though, two bills were introduced with the term “voter fraud” as part of the text. Neither mentioned mail-in ballots. Both dealt with voters' rights.

In January 2009, before the session of the 81st Legislature, another report was issued by the House Committee on Elections. Now the report had grown in size, from 62 pages two years before, to an epic 161 pages.

It included an account from Starr County election administrator Rafael Montalvo, who told of a batch of 30-40 absentee mail-in ballots requested from a single address, and another stack of 278 mail-in ballots for which signatures did not match the ballot applications.

Montalvo also brought up the "large problem" of politiqueras in his testimony to the committee:

“Mr. Montalvo said sometimes politiqueras receive $10 per voter and can make good money during [an] election period. The elderly targeted are individuals who do not get out much.”

Among the recommendations for lawmakers to address in the upcoming session:

“The committee would like the 81st Legislature to take in consideration the recommendations offered by the sub-committee on mail-in ballot integrity. As agreed by the whole committee, there is mail-in ballot fraud and those issues do need to be addressed during the upcoming session. ... The problem Texas faces with politiqueras, or 'vote brokers,' is an issue needing to be addressed during the 81st session. Currently in Texas statute there are laws prohibiting the practice of vote buying and the coercion of votes. However, these prohibitions only apply to offenses conducted in direct relations between campaign workers and the voter. The committee believes the 81st Legislature should look into ways to prevent vote brokering, including revisions to current law and more effective enforcement.”

Last year there were election-related bills put forward to allow high school students to serve as election clerks, improve access to the polls for the elderly and disabled, and regulate political advertising.

Lawmakers proposed two bills that broached the subject of mail-in ballot fraud, but neither HB 452 nor HB 3444 advanced past the committee process to the full legislature. The latter measure, sponsored by state Rep. Rafael Anchía, would have required anyone who assists more than five voters in an election to register as an “early voting assistant" and provide a phone number in addition to other information already required.

The mail-in ballot plans took a far back seat to a hotly debated voter ID bill, which would have tightened ID requirements for in-person voters.

In the case of several election-related bills, Linda Rogers, chair of the Burnet County Republican Party, was called to testify to lawmakers in Austin. She was a dogged supporter of the voter ID bill and concedes that the bill "probably" obscured other voting issues, including mail-in ballot fraud.

In fact, she viewed the mail-in ballot fraud issue as a nonstarter: "If [elections] are run correctly, you aren't going to have voter fraud," Rogers said. Matching the signature on the mail-in ballot application with the signature on the returned ballot should ensure no ballot fraud has taken place.

"We had 74 mail-in ballots in this recent runoff election," Rogers said. "And right now, the staff is looking over those ballots."

In the upcoming session, "I'm sure voter ID will be brought back," she added.

The voter ID bill to require voters to show photo identification at the polls passed the Senate, but failed to pass in the House.

Aaron PenaPENA

"Voter ID became code language,” says Aaron Peña, the lawmaker from Hidalgo County. “It was a Washington-driven plan. Not to demean the effort, but it did not come to fruition here in Texas."

The session ended with nary a word about the mail-in ballot fraud report.

Montalvo’s comments, so stinging in the report, seemed to move no one.

Except Montalvo himself.

“It’s a joke,” he told Texas Watchdog. “The fact is, I’ve never seen so many people blind to election fraud. I guess if you are winning, there is no election fraud.”

Montalvo, part of a 10-member coalition of South Texas election administrators who are taking their concerns over voter fraud to the statehouse during the 82nd Legislature next year, has seen his county hit hard by alleged voter malfeasance.

Three different types of violations were reported to the state Attorney General’s office after the March primaries in Starr County. Only Dimmit County reported more.

He’s not optimistic about a solution from lawmakers.

“Austin doesn’t care,” Montalvo said. “They feel that’s why you have a district attorney, and the state doesn’t want to bother with local matters. And the DA is getting elected. He doesn’t want to mess with either side in this kind of battle.”

 

* * *

 

Some lawmakers have promised action in the coming session regarding mail-in ballot fraud. If history is any guide, most proposals will be shot down. The more strident measures will be debated hotly, often along partisan lines, before dying a slow, ceremonious death.

 

Sen. Florence Shapiro, a Republican from Plano, introduced a companion bill to Wolens’ in 2003 which provided felony penalties for certain types of mail-in ballot fraud compared to the mid-level misdemeanor charges the crime carried then. Her bill never made it past committee, and the crimes are still mostly misdemeanors.

Florence ShapiroSHAPIRO

“There were lots of bills introduced that year that were heard and very few passed,” Shapiro said. In fact, that year, they tried to do so many things regarding voter fraud, “we might have gotten burned out.”

And state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, an ardent voter ID supporter last session, acknowledged that along with voter ID, a measure to address mail-in ballots needs to be debated again.

“Last session there was that overwhelming focus on voter ID, so ballot fraud didn’t get addressed as it should have been,” the Angleton Republican said.

The partisan rancor that went with the voter ID bill will certainly accompany a full press to more stringent laws regarding mail-in ballot fraud. Even though the last major overhaul of the mail-in process was pushed through by a Democrat and had plenty of bipartisan backing.

“All of this is about having good, honest, fair election laws that are properly communicated,” Bonnen said. But how to pass something?

“I don’t know,” he says. And it seems he really doesn’t.

There are a dozen pending criminal cases related to voter fraud being handled by the AG’s office, and more sprinkled in various prosecutors' offices around the state.

Even if convicted successfully, most will result in low-level misdemeanor charges.

It’s a drop in the bucket, to hear election administrators talk of it. But the dearth of convictions may be the impediment to true reform.

"There is a lot of disagreement over the extent of voter fraud in the state,” said state Rep. Todd Smith, who chaired the House Elections Committee last session. A Republican, his colleagues on the other side of the aisle use the lack of convictions as evidence the practice is isolated, he said.

And Republicans are skeptical of that argument and believe it happens more frequently but is impossible to catch. So any additional prosecutions would move things along.”

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org. Photo of the capitol dome in Austin by flickr user _4cryingoutloud, used via a Creative Commons license.

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