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Democrats, attorney general call off lawsuit; both sides declare victory

Both sides declared victory Wednesday when Texas Democrats and Attorney General Greg Abbott settled a contentious federal lawsuit regarding voter fraud investigations.

The settlement was announced shortly before the trial was scheduled to begin in Marshall.

What was the lawsuit about?

The lawsuit focused on aggressive prosecution by the attorney general's office of reports of voter fraud involving mail-in ballots.

■ Abbott's office said it has won more than 10 convictions statewide against people accused of illegally handling ballot applications and mail-in ballots that belonged to other voters.

■ The investigations clashed with a long-standing tradition in some minority communities of neighborhood activists helping elderly and disabled voters with mail-in ballots.

■ Six Texas residents and the Texas Democratic Party sued Abbott's office in 2006, complaining that his investigations were unconstitutional and politically motivated. The suit also asserted that most of Abbott's investigations focused on minor violations rather than true voter fraud.

What is the law regarding mail-in ballots?

Lawmakers changed the Election Code in 2003 to require those handling other people's mail-in ballots to put their names, addresses and signatures on every envelope. The change was intended to discourage voter intimidation.

What were the terms of the settlement?

The attorney general's office agreed to adhere to "guidelines" including not pursuing cases based on technical violations of the Election Code unless there is evidence of actual voter fraud, according to lawyers involved in the case.

Who won?

■ Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, said the agreement is "entirely consistent" with the office's previous actions.

■ Boyd Richie, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said Abbott would no longer be able to use tax money "to selectively prosecute Democrats who were 'guilty' of nothing more than helping a friend or neighbor who is elderly or disabled get their perfectly legal ballot to the mailbox."

What's next?

Democrats said they are prepared to pursue new legal action if they decide that Abbott's office is not following the guidelines of the settlement.

■ They also agreed to drop a second suit accusing Abbott's office of engaging in racial discrimination through their voter fraud investigations, Democratic operative Matt Angle said.