in Houston, Texas
Stiffer penalties a solution?
Wednesday, Apr 07, 2010, 03:07PM CST
By Steve Miller

Continued from page 1 / 2.

In February, three people from Jim Wells County -- Zaida Bueno, 55; Norma Lopez, 60; and Cynthia Lopez, 46 --  were charged with “unlawful possession of ballots intended for another,” according to a complaint filed by the state attorney general’s office. The charges were part of an investigation by the AG into elections in Jim Wells County dating back to the March 2008 primary.

According to news reports, the three charged in the complaint were incriminated by notebooks in which they document names of hundreds of county voters eligible to vote by mail, including those 65 and older or people with disabilities. In the 2008 primary, two contests in Jim Wells determined to be tainted by voter fraud via mail-in ballots were thrown out and another election was held.

When Abbott came into office in 2006, he announced that voter fraud would be tackled via outreach to local officials to educate them on the elements of voter fraud and how to identify it.

His office, with a team working as part of the criminal investigations unit out of Austin, has also tapped officials in various counties for information and assistance in locating individuals to give statements concerning irregularities and abuses.

In some of the smaller counties, the district attorney’s office is too small -- and often too familiar with the local players -- to handle a voter fraud investigation.

Like San Patricio County District Attorney Patrick Flanigan, who says he turned over local complaints of mail-in ballot fraud in Mathis to the AG. Flanigan said he received numerous complaints of elderly people being preyed upon by canvassers.

“We gave the attorney general’s investigators a list of 20-25 names after the election in 2008,” Flanigan said. The names were of people who complained either directly or indirectly of mail-in ballot fraud. But still no case has been made. Most of these complaints stem from narrowly decided local elections rather than the statewide contests, he added.

Al PachecoPACHECO

One of those filing a complaint with Flanigan's office was Al Pacheco, a retired law enforcement agent who lives in Mathis, population 5,300.

"Patrones are no longer here, but you do have some kingmakers that if I do you a favor, you owe me," Pacheco said, referring to the decline of more powerful bosses running the political system.

And the favors are traded via mail-in ballots, he said, which swell in numbers depending on how contentious a local election is.

But despite the outcry from a few, there have been few arrests. Like the three women from Jim Wells County facing arraignment later this month in Live Oak County, most charges have been low-priority misdemeanors carrying small fines and short sentences that are generally pleaded out for probation.

And also like the cases in Jim Wells, the most prevalent charge overall was appropriating mail-in ballots, one count for each ballot.

One remedy might be harsher punishment for the crime of illegally possessing a ballot.

“Stiffer penalties for this type of behavior would be a deterrent,” said Mauricio Julian Cuellar Jr., a reporter at the Alice Echo-News Journal, who covers voting issues in Jim Wells County. “As it is now, they know that it’s a slap on the wrist. And they make enough money to make it worth the risk.”

Julian Cuellar's newspaper is the one that investigated voting problems in 2008.

One individual admitted to the paper to voting violations while working for a man who was eventually elected as the district attorney in Jim Wells and Brooks County.

“A canvasser who apparently worked exclusively for 79th District Attorney candidate Armando Barerra admits she filled out mail-in applications incorrectly, marked ballots in support of Barrera and handled about 50 ballots.

Cindy Villarreal said she worked for $150 a week to assist in Barrera’s campaign. According to the campaign reports submitted by Barrera, Villarreal was paid a total of $750 for work during the March 4 Primary.

“I made sure that (Barrera) was marked on the ballot because I was helping him,” Villarreal said. “... I went to the mailbox (Post Office) and I threw (the ballots) in there.”

She said she also marked votes for Justice of the Peace Pct. 1 candidate Guadalupe Martinez, District Judge Richard Terrell and Sheriff Oscar Lopez, just to help them out even though she wasn’t getting paid by those candidates.”

In the course of its reporting, the newspaper discovered that eight individuals had mail-in ballot applications submitted in their name without their knowing of it.

In another case, a voter told of a politiquero coming by the home of his parents repeatedly, asking for their mail-in ballots.

And in yet another case, nine employees of a single county commissioner had requested mail-in ballots and cited disability as the reason, even though they were not disabled.

TAFT ACTIVIST SAYS HE WANTS TO HELP OLDER VOTERS

In an office off the main drag of Taft, Texas, Filberto Rivera plans his next political move. Not that his former role as mayor of the town of 3,300 was any great shakes, but his ouster last year still stings, and he plans to make a comeback.

And to do that, he will help people vote. And he has a stack of mail-in ballot applications. And reams of paper listing which voters are older than 65, the age at which they can cast a mail-in ballot.

Many of them need help, he said.

Filberto RiveraRIVERA

And if they can’t get a family member?

“I just tell them to call me back. … If you need any help, call me back.”

For relatives, it gets easier. For his mother-in-law, for example.

“First I’ll say, ‘We’ve got this sample ballot. This is who we’re supporting. But if you want to cast your vote for anyone else, just let me know, I’ll tell you which name it is."

The practice as Rivera describes it is legal and in keeping with the Texas election code.

Tipoffs for investigators have come when signatures on the application for the mail-in ballots don't match the signatures on the ballot itself.

Rivera (pictured above) understands this, but says there's a good explanation for this: Older voters are sometimes weary, sometimes on medication.

“That’s the other thing,” he said, looking over a batch of copied mail-in ballot applications. “Their signature can be, this was pretty decent this time when she signed her ballot application, but when she signed her envelope her signature was way off because she’s an elderly. Some days they sign pretty good. Other days they don’t.”

The attorney general's office continues to investigate voter fraud as it receives complaints from both voters and local officials.

But while holding the highest law enforcement club in the state, officials there point to voter fraud laws that carry wrist slaps as the highest penalty. And that brings about criticism, which then unnerves lawmakers when it comes to strengthening the laws. And the cycle goes around.

Meanwhile, news outlets report on the malfeasance with the effect of shouting at a wall.

And there is also the problem that any kind of heavy hand might bring about: disenfranchising voters who are trying to go about the process the right way.

"You don't know who is out there doing something [wrong]," said Jaime Serna, elections administrator in Willacy County, who is also a member of the South Texas group hoping to effect change during the next legislative session. He said the law governing how someone may assist another with a ballot is toothless. "Just because you assist someone ... doesn't mean you have to sign your own name."

Besides, some of the voters are elderly, and many in the region don't speak English.

"They are just looking for someone to help them."

Help, though, is relative.

“There are individuals in this community, good, hard-working individuals, who might be poor or they might be old or they might be sick or disabled, who are being taken advantage of every year because of this system that these individuals have in place,” said Julian Cuellar Jr., the Alice Echo-News Journal reporter.

“And I think that’s part of our hope here, that what we do in some way diminishes that, or causes that to go away, whether that’s through bringing them into the light and showing people, hey, this is what’s going on, and it's not right, or through a legal means with the AG’s office or other investigators.”

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org. Hedshot of Attorney General Greg Abbott from Wikimedia Commons, posted by user Kevyn. Other photos and videos by Lee Ann O'Neal, leeann@texaswatchdog.org or 713-980-9777.

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