Politics & Government

Voter fraud: Trump’s call for investigation comes as probe continues in Tarrant County

As President Donald Trump continues to call for a national investigation into voter fraud, there’s sharp disagreement in Texas on whether it’s a widespread problem at all.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and some Republicans support the probe, saying they believe there is a significant problem — and it needs to end.

“Voter fraud is real,” Abbott said recently during a Fox News interview. “It must be stopped. We need every tool to go after it.”

“But that said, I want to make clear I have no information or data about what happened in the most recent presidential election.”

Democrats — and some Republicans — contend that the concerns of Trump and Abbott are vastly overblown.

Trump’s call for a probe comes as a case of voter fraud in Tarrant County remains under investigation and an earlier local case is on the verge of heading to court.

The president, who has drawn a mixed reaction since saying he believes millions of illegal votes were cast last year, has offered no proof of voter fraud problems.

But one source for his concern traces back to Texas, where a former state employee — Gregg Phillips — tweeted out that more than 3 million illegal votes were cast in the general election.

“I will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD, including those registered to vote in two states, those who are illegal and ... even, those registered to vote who are dead (and many for a long time),” Trump tweeted recently. “Depending on results, we will strengthen up voting procedures!”

Many Republicans and Democrats alike are firing back against Trump’s accusations, particularly as reports show the president’s daughter Tiffany Trump, son-in-law Jared Kushner, strategist Stephen K. Bannon and Treasury Secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin were among those registered to vote in two states last year.

And some say they worry Trump is on the verge of hurting overall faith in U.S. elections.

“This is an attack on our electoral system and the legitimacy of all elections,” said Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, who heads the political science department at the University of North Texas in Denton.

“That is a problem and the more this is discussed without firm evidence, the more some in our society will simply say that they will not accept results of future elections or that they will not trust whoever they do not want to win, if that person does indeed win.”

Texas ties

After the general election, Gregg Phillips, a former executive deputy commissioner for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, tweeted that he learned more than 3 million votes were “cast by non-citizens.”

At the time, he said “we are joining @TrueTheVote to initiate legal action.”

The group later released a statement saying it supports Trump’s comments, particularly in that illegal votes cost Trump the popular vote.

“We are still collecting data and will be for several months, but our intent is to publish a comprehensive study on the significant impact of illegal voting in all of its many forms and begin a national discussion on how voters, states, and the Trump Administration can best address this growing problem,” according to a True The Vote statement.

Trump tweeted Friday that he looks forward to seeing more details.

“Greg Phillips and crew say at least 3,000,000 votes were illegal. We must do better!”

Phillips drew media attention during a short tenure with the state agency more than a decade ago for everything from allegations of cronyism to helping pave the path to privatize part of the state’s social services system, from which he benefited.

His tweet about illegal votes has drawn criticism from some.

“In Texas, we have an antiquated voter registration system that won’t even allow a person to register online, many of our voting machines were manufactured around the same time as the original Nintendo Game Boy and our state is perpetually ranked near the bottom when it comes to participation in elections,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas.

“All of those are very real problems that we can and should be addressing rather than wasting time talking about voter fraud ‘statistics’ that were literally pulled out of thin air.”

Tarrant probes

Locally, the most recent voter fraud case is of Rosa Maria Ortega of Grand Prairie, who was arrested in 2015 and accused of voting in two elections although she is not a U.S. citizen. The case is set for trial in February, said Sam Jordan, a spokeswoman for the Tarrant County district attorney’s office.

Ortega is accused of voting in person during the November 2012 general election and the May 2014 Republican primary runoff in Dallas County “when she knew she was not a United States citizen,” according to a Tarrant County grand jury indictment.

An earlier Fort Worth voter fraud case — when Fort Worth Democratic precinct chair candidate Hazel Brionne Woodard arranged for her son to vote under his father’s name in 2011 — drew new attention recently when Republicans posted examples of past voter fraud prosecutions on social media.

Separate allegations of voter fraud in Tarrant County remain under investigation by the state, focusing on mail-in ballots that allow people to vote from their homes without ID or verification of their identity.

Local officials say they haven’t heard anything about the investigation lately, although several saw workers with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office in Tarrant County last year gathering paperwork and interviewing potential witnesses.

Paxton spokeswoman Kayleigh Lovvorn said she couldn’t “comment on, confirm or deny any investigations.”

At issue are concerns about “vote harvesting,” in which people fill out and return other people’s ballots.

The question is how often people may have assisted others, or physically helped by witnessing, with filling out applications for mail-in ballots or the ballots themselves. Texans may assist as many people as they like in requesting mail-in ballots. But each person is allowed to witness only one request for a mail-in ballot per year, unless it’s for immediate family members.

Aaron Harris, a Republican political consultant from North Richland Hills, filed at least one complaint with the state citing election concerns in Tarrant County.

“All I can say is that the investigation is ongoing, full steam ahead,” he said.

Part of the investigation was prompted by concerns of former state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, who lost his 2014 re-election bid by 111 votes.

Burnam sued to challenge the results, saying he believed an “illegal computerized-signature vote-by-mail operation” was run by opponent Ramon Romero, now the representative for Texas House District 90. Burnam dropped the lawsuit months later after judges refused to require election officials to release vote-by-mail applications in question.

While he still believes there are local issues regarding ballot harvesting, Burnam said he doesn’t have faith in the president’s call for a voter fraud investigation.

“He’s trumped up a pile of nonsense,” Burnam said. “He doesn’t know anything about how elections work. But he does know how to manipulate the masses.

“They are on a witch hunt.”

Election abnormalities?

Election officials locally and across the state say there may have been random abnormalities during the November election — such as people locally being worried their votes were flipped because they weren’t accustomed to using electronic machines to vote — but many could be attributed to user error.

“We really didn’t see anything voter fraud related,” said Stephen Vickers, chief deputy election administrator in Tarrant County. “Obviously we had record turnout. And every time we have straight party on the ballot, we have this issue of people not knowing how it works.

“We put instructions on the equipment,” he said. “We work with the equipment every day so we understand it. But some people may vote only once every four years.”

Trump last year mentioned concerns about invalid voter registrations and dead voters casting ballots, citing a 2012 report about the country’s voter registration system by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The report noted that more than 1.8 million deceased people are listed as voters throughout the country and it stated that around 24 million voter registrations are no longer valid or accurate. Even though it didn’t say there was any evidence that dead voters are trying to cast ballots, Trump said he was worried they would.

Texas election officials have said dead voters aren’t an issue, since state employees constantly work to keep voting rolls up to date.

But voter fraud and ballot harvesting are among the issues that have gone before the House Elections Committee, which held several hearings where members heard complaints and concerns from voters and officials.

“We understand that, despite all the lollipops and rainbow talk we hear that there is no election fraud, there is rampant voter fraud in parts of this state,” state Rep. Mike Schofield, R-Katy, said during a hearing last year.

Conversely, U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, called on Trump to ask the GOP to help restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“In Texas, we’ve seen the damage done by phony voter fraud claims in the absence of a strong Voting Rights Act,” he said. “As part of an insincere witch hunt for nonexistent fraud, Texas Republican leaders adopted the most restrictive and repressive voter ID law in the nation.

“Until President Trump and other Republican leaders work with Democrats to restore our lost voting rights, we can only conclude that their purpose is not to protect the integrity of elections but to consolidate power by weakening the voting strength of those who oppose them.”

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

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