Fort Worth

Election fraud in Fort Worth? Candidate questions ballots; incumbent calls it ‘slander’

Fort Worth city council candidate Chris Nettles accused incumbent Kelly Allen Gray of election fraud. He claims more than 200 absentee ballots have signatures that don’t match their application.
Fort Worth city council candidate Chris Nettles accused incumbent Kelly Allen Gray of election fraud. He claims more than 200 absentee ballots have signatures that don’t match their application.

A candidate for an east Fort Worth council district has questioned the validity of more than 200 absentee ballots, hoping to force a runoff with incumbent Kelly Allen Gray.

Chris Nettles, a justice of the peace clerk who hoped to unseat Gray in May’s election, said his campaign looked at the nearly 550 absentee ballots in the race for District 8 and found discrepancies between the signatures on the applications and the signatures on the ballot. At least 200 should be reviewed and discredited, he said, saying they’re evidence of election fraud.

Gray firmly denies any wrongdoing in the election.

The election was certified last week before Gray was sworn in for another term. She won District 8 with 1,956 votes. Nettles took 1,472 votes while Kevin “KL” Johnson had 243. Only 93 votes kept Nettles from a runoff race with Gray.

Nettles said Wednesday he planned to file a petition in district court and with the Texas Attorney General’s Office contesting the election Thursday.

“We did the work and we raised the money and we were cheated out,” he said.

His campaign claims an unidentified group collected absentee ballots and filled them out with votes for Gray. Nettles said in person early and election day voting results were within a thin margin, but absentee ballots had a wide margin, which made him suspicious.

“We have a gut feeling,” he said.

Gray called the accusation “slanderous” and told the Star-Telegram on Wednesday she was unaware of concerns with the absentee ballots. She denied taking part in any ballot tampering.

“We run a fair race. We don’t cheat,” she said. “That’s not what we do. Period.”

Gray was first elected in 2012’s special election. This year’s election was the closest for Gray since she beat former councilwoman Kathleen Hicks in 2013. Gray said the election was valid and she was prepared to move forward.

“I’m very sad Mr. Nettles, having lost, would try to slander me,” she said. “I am about running the businesses of District 8 and Fort Worth and will not be pulled into something insinuating wrongdoing.”

The Nettles campaign filed a public information request for absentee ballot signatures from the Tarrant County Elections office and received that information this week, said Heider Garcia, the county’s election administrator.

Now the issue is up to the city, which contracted with the county elections office to run the election, he said.

“We can’t do anything at this point,” Garcia said. “If a complaint comes my way, I’ll forward it to the District Attorney’s office and the Attorney General.”

Assistant city secretary Ron Gonzales said as of noon Wednesday no official complaints about the election results had been made with the city.

Verifying signatures can be tough, but is crucial part of election security, said Gerry Langeler, director of communication and Research for the National Vote at Home Institute. The nonprofit advocates for mail ballots as a way to bolster voter engagement.

Solid signature verification should rely on two or more signature examples, Langeler said, because signatures change over time. States with robust signature verification rely on both software and human inspection. They provided signature judges with examples from the voter’s registration, DMV and tax records along with the signature on the ballot, he said.

Nettles compared signatures on the absentee application with those on the actual ballot. He has not contacted voters directly yet, he said.

The institute’s research suggests very few signatures, less than 1%, are rejected during the verification process, Langeler said.

The overall issue of voter, or election, fraud has been a big issue in Tarrant County, particularly since last year when four women were indicted on charges that they targeted and, in one case stole, the votes of older voters on Fort Worth’s north side.

In these cases, the complaints focused on mail-in ballots, which allowed people to vote from their homes without any ID or verification of identity. Some of these charges allege that the women forged voter signatures on early ballots.

And five years ago, then-state Rep. Lon Burnam filed a lawsuit challenging his loss to Ramon Romero by 111 votes, claiming that illegal mail-in ballots cost him his re-election bid.

In his case, he claimed that absentee mail-in ballots were illegally submitted by iPads or other tablets.

Burnam ended up appealing his case all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or lranker@star-telegram.com.

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