in Houston, Texas
Use of politiqueros takes illegal turn
Wednesday, Apr 07, 2010, 03:07PM CST
By Steve Miller

Continued from page 1.

Last year, as county elections administrators in South Texas talked to each other about various legal and procedural issues, they found common ground in a chronic problem that few other election heads in the state have complained of: mail-in ballot malfeasance. They all knew it was going on, and they all knew that few people believed it.

Editorials in newspapers to the north have disparaged efforts aimed at policing elections, particularly the stated effort of Abbott, the state attorney general, to fight what he called a "persistent problem."

"Actually, the paltry results of Abbott’s initiative are a good thing," read an editorial in the Austin American-Statesman in 2008. "It shows that vote fraud is hardly the 'persistent problem' Abbott claimed it was when he announced the investigation in January 2006."

Greg AbbottABBOTT

In March 2006, Abbott issued a statement asserting the prevalence of voter fraud and put forth his plan to curb the practice, in part via $1.5 million from a federal grant. But to date, he has little to show for the effort. Most of the cases that have been prosecuted criminally have been pleaded out in exchange for deferred adjudication, probation or pre-trial diversion. The cases have also caused bad feelings among minority groups and most Democrats, and prompted a lawsuit from a batch of displeased voters.

As for the paucity of more serious charges, "our role is to enforce the laws that are enacted by legislature," said Jerry Strickland, communications director for the AG's office.

In an e-mail, office spokesman Tom Kelley added:

The Attorney General is not the chief enforcer of criminal statutes. ... We take these cases at the behest of local DAs, election administrators or the Sec. of State. We do have concurrent jurisdiction in enforcement, but we certainly defer to local authorities' abilities to enforce these laws.
Although we have concurrent jurisdiction in Election Code cases, the Attorney General investigates only cases referred to us by local DAs, election administrators, the Sec. of State or citizens complaints.”

The somewhat limited effect of these investigations leaves local officials, like those elections administrators in South Texas, in a bind when they see voter malfeasance. For that cadre of election officials, creating their own circle aimed at policing voter fraud is a hopeful start to quelling voter malfeasance.

“We have issues that were unique to our area and one of those is the politiqueros,” said Roy Ruiz, elections administrator in Kenedy County. “They are hired by candidates here, in these towns, and they entice the elderly in a way that they would vote the way this person wants them to.”

The use of these individuals is common in South Texas, Ruiz said. In simple form, mobilizing politiqueros to get out the vote is legal and in fact was used by Hillary Clinton in her effort to gain traction in South Texas during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.

But Ruiz said that in these South Texas counties that bonded over the prevalence of politiqueros, the practice has taken an illegal turn.

South Texas map Voters are free to have assistance when filling out a ballot, and that assistant may sign on the voter's ballot as a witness. But no one may witness for more than one person.

"If I am doing that for up to a couple hundred people, I am not going to sign my name on as a witness," Ruiz said. "You won't find my name on any part of the ballot. We also have 19-year-olds registering to vote, then trying to get an absentee ballot because they say they are disabled. They aren't disabled. They are doing it because the politiquero told them to. And fraud is our biggest issue in South Texas."

Anyone may request a mail-in ballot application from the Secretary of State's Web page or an elections office. But in San Patricio County, older voters who had requested their own applications were visited by strangers who somehow knew the ballots were there, the elections administrator, Hill, said.

But aging people often have trouble with details, which muddles an investigation.

“The hardest thing about it is we don’t know, they don’t have the names of people," Hill said. “We’re not investigators as elections officials. We are just here to let the people vote.”

The 10-county group of election officials plans to enlist more counties and take its issue to Austin during the legislative session in 2011. Maybe hire a lobbyist to get their issues out there.

“We’d like to get our concerns about these voting problems heard,” Ruiz said.

He considered another impediment to meaningful reform addressing the politiqueros: "It is possible that some state reps use them."

VOTER IN ALICE SAYS HE NEVER REQUESTS A MAIL-IN BALLOT; IT JUST ARRIVES

If true, such a move echoes the most famous of vote appropriation in South Texas. In a 1948 U.S. Senate contest, votes were discovered in the days following the election in Jim Wells County, handing Lyndon B. Johnson a 78-vote victory.

The current troubles are similar, although the stakes are not nearly so high. Local observers say voting irregularities are more common during hotly contested local elections -- such as for justices of the peace and city council posts -- than in statewide contests.

A report issued a year ago by the state House Committee on Elections acknowledged mail-in voter fraud exists. And it included mention of the politiqueros.

At a mail-in ballot subcommittee gathering in September 2008, elections administrators from South Texas counties told lawmakers of their troubles with voting malfeasance. Their comments were included in the report, citing instances of individuals hired by political campaigns to promote a candidate and deliver votes from nursing homes, assisted living centers or even elderly people living in their own homes.

The report urged action on addressing mail-in ballots in the upcoming session, which at the time was the 81st Legislature.

No laws were proposed in response to the report, as legislators focused attention on a voter ID bill, a political bomb that died with great prejudice amidst partisan rancor. The voter ID measure would have required voters to present photo identification at the polls, but would not have addressed the mail-in ballot process.

 

Voters like Maria Garcia never spoke before any elections committee, but the experiences of people like her speak loud to the notion that political operatives are seeking out the elderly and homebound for some kind of gain. Garcia, of Alice, Texas, told Texas Watchdog that last year, a number of women came by the High Rise Apartments, a building in Alice which houses primarily seniors through federal "Section 8" assistance to people with low incomes, to help them all cast ballots.

Maria GarciaGARCIA

“There were several women that would come door-to-door, asking if we wanted to vote,” explained Garcia, 58, a retired nurse and resident of the highrise. “So that’s how we voted. The more people they recruited, I guess the more they got paid.”

The door-to-door helpers would drop off ballots, the ballots would be filled out and the women would be back to pick them up.

“She said to pick the candidate that I most thought would win, and that’s who you voted for,” Garcia said. “But she never told me which one to pick or whatever."

This year, she didn’t see anyone soliciting.

But another resident, Paul Garza, said he had help with his ballot this year, as he has for the last few, from a woman he has known for a decade.

His daughter, Virginya Ficello, said she was present as Mona Castillo helped her father fill out a ballot. Ficello alleged that Castillo coached her father in his vote for a particular local candidate. According to the Alice Echo-News Journal, Ficello filed a complaint with the Alice Police Department alleging that Castillo was a politiquero who was exploiting her father and making money for getting his vote for a designated candidate.

"Then she took his ballot, then never signed it as she was supposed to do," Ficello told Texas Watchdog. "She just said she would take it and mail it for him. And it was never put into the envelope before she left."

Castillo had not been charged with any crime as of late last month.

Garza told Texas Watchdog that he never fills out an application for a mail-in ballot, and that it “just arrives in the mail.”

And did he fill it out himself?

“I’ve said all I am going to say,” Garza said, adding Castillo was his friend, but “I didn’t know she was into that deal.”

 

CONTINUES

Page 3: Stiffer penalties a solution?

Related: More extended video interviews

Related: Politiquero tradition shapes elections in South Texas

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