Less than a month before the Nov. 8 election, allegations of voter fraud in Tarrant County are under investigation by the state, prompting concern that the timing may intimidate some voters — and possibly lay groundwork for the Legislature to enact more restrictions on voting next year.
The complaints focus on mail-in ballots, which allow people to vote from their homes without any ID or verification of identity.
Supporters have long said mail-in balloting is crucial for overseas residents, the military and senior citizens. Critics maintain that such voting is ripe for abuse and raises concerns about “vote harvesting,” in which people could fill out and return other people’s ballots.
Some say the investigation is politically motivated; others say it’s addressing a practice that has been a problem for years.
“The Republicans have been looking for a blockbuster case to demonstrate that voter fraud isn’t just a series of small mistakes,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “If some of these allegations turn out to be true, they may finally have their white whale.
“Whether there is lawbreaking or not, the issue of voting is polarized and revelations this close to an election are bound to have an effect on Democratic Party and affiliated groups’ efforts to get out the vote. Voters may be hesitant to sign up for or vote through a mail-in ballot, let alone give it to someone else. This may reduce turnout in some heavily Democratic areas that utilize this process.”
Local officials say workers with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office have been in the reliably red Tarrant County gathering paperwork and interviewing potential witnesses.
The attorney general’s office declined to “confirm or deny investigations” or comment on the situation. When asked for the complaints that started the local investigation, attorney general’s workers declined to release them, expressing concern that doing so might hamper a criminal investigation.
The Tarrant County Elections Administration has declined to comment on the issue.
“There could be a problem,” Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said. “I really believe our folks are very much on top of things.
“That’s the whole problem with mail-in ballots,” he said. “Someone requests a ballot and we don’t know if they got the ballot, filled it out and returned it. The voter fraud they are referring to can only be corrected by doing away with mail-in ballots.”
The mail-in ballots involved in the state investigation are from the primary elections, local officials say.
At issue is how often people may assist others — or physically help 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 more than one immediate family member.
In the primaries, about 20,000 applications for mail-in ballots were received at the Tarrant County elections office, Whitley said.
Of those, 131 involved witnesses. Of those 131, five people witnessed more than one mail-in ballot. Four of those five people witnessed requests from multiple family members, which is allowed. One apparently witnessed five applications from the same address, a nursing home or a retirement center.
That case was turned over to state investigators.
“We’re not currently involved with the AG’s investigation,” said Samantha Jordan, a spokeswoman with the Tarrant County district attorney’s office. “It’s possible they may decide at some point to seek our assistance with some local cases, but we are not to that point yet.”
Jordan said the DA’s office supports the investigation.
“It’s important to ensure our processes are running as efficiently and effectively as they’re meant to be,” she said. “Protecting the purity of the voter registration process goes directly to the heart of our system of government.”
Jordan said there is one case of alleged voter fraud in the local system right now — Rosa Maria Ortega of Grand Prairie, who was arrested last year and accused of voting in two elections although she is not a U.S. citizen. She 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. A trial in the case is scheduled for Oct. 31 in Criminal District Court No. 3.
‘Reform the election code’
Aaron Harris of North Richland Hills, a Republican political consultant, is expected to talk about the issue during a meeting that begins at 6:45 p.m. Monday at the Elks Lodge, 3233 White Settlement Road in Fort Worth.
The meeting announcement states that “there is evidence that two current elected officials are in office due to election fraud” and Harris will reveal “the elected officials who possibly benefited from the alleged crimes.”
Harris, a former campaign manager for state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, has opposed bond programs including the one that was proposed for John Peter Smith Hospital last year. He has worked with Dallas businessman Monty Bennett to campaign against directors on the Tarrant Regional Water District board.
He has been looking into voting concerns, including those expressed by former state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, who lost his re-election bid in 2014 by 111 votes.
Burnam filed a lawsuit challenging the results, saying he believed that an “illegal computerized-signature vote-by-mail operation” was run by his opponent, Ramon Romero, who now is the representative for Texas House District 90.
Burnam dropped the lawsuit months later after judges refused to require county election officials to release the vote-by-mail applications that were in question.
“Virtually every local election I know anything about has been disproportionately impacted by mail-in ballot harvesting program run by a handful of people,” Burnam said. “The only way to fix it is to automatically mail ballots out to all voters over 65.”
Romero said he believes that Paxton’s office will find there are “completely false accusations” in the local complaint.
“If there’s an investigation, so be it. Let them investigate,” he said. “I’m going to continue to do what I’ve always done, encourage people to vote early, in person or by mail. If this has an ill effect on people’s right to vote by mail, … it’s unfortunate.”
Gov. Greg Abbott weighed in on the issue after Empower Texans posted a blog statement about the AG looking into a “vote-harvesting scheme” in Tarrant County. “Largest Voter Fraud Investigation in Texas History Underway in Tarrant County,” he tweeted. “We will crush illegal voting.”
Abbott’s office declined to comment beyond the governor’s tweet.
Harris, of DFW-based Direct Action Texas, said he has long heard rumors about the “manipulation of the elections system in Tarrant County.”
“This vote harvesting operation preys on the elderly and the economically disadvantaged, who are among our most vulnerable neighbors,” he said in a statement. “This research has uncovered major flaws in the election code and its enforcement. We were happy to assist the AG’s office in their investigation.
“Given the magnitude of this issue, we must reform the election code to restore the integrity of the process.”
Burkett’s bill was designed to ensure that campaign workers are no longer paid based on the number of mail-in ballots they collect and mail. It now is a crime to offer payment based on the number of ballots a person collects during a Texas election.
Anyone convicted of “ballot harvesting” faces a misdemeanor charge that could bring 30 days to one year in jail, as well as a fine of up to $4,000. Repeat offenders face a state jail felony charge, jail time up to two years and as much as a $10,000 fine.
Burkett has said the new law “is an attempt to weed out the ‘bad actors’ that are preying on vulnerable Texans and corrupting our democratic process.”
The House Elections Committee has held several hearings, listening to complaints and concerns from voters and officials alike. Members have discussed the possible need for election law reform.
“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 recent hearing.
During a separate hearing, officials with the Texas attorney general’s office responded to concerns.
They were asked whether problems are isolated to perhaps a voter mistakenly voting here or there, or whether there were organized groups creating voter fraud.
“It’s certainly organized groups engaging in voter harvesting,” said Jonathan White, an assistant attorney general with the attorney general’s office.
A local Democrat speaking privately said this investigation is becoming public now, just in time to make it an issue in the 85th Legislature, since part of the Republican-led voter ID law has been overturned by the courts.
“Now they are going to try to propose legislation that would make it harder to vote by mail,” the officeholder said. “Texas has gotten whipped up on voter ID, so they are trying this.”
Some Republican political consultants say privately that they don’t think there’s much to the local investigation.
“It’s amazing, but there’s nothing there,” one said. “The law they want changed now is mail-in ballot.
“It would be hard to imagine that we could get rid of ballots by mail,” the GOP consultant said. “There are too many people who can’t make it to the polls — the entire military, people in the hospital, people who are forced to be out of town. It’s not practical to get rid of it.”
The investigation has prompted concern among officials.
The Tarrant County Republican Party recently sent out an email titled “Emergency Voter Fraud Information Inside Alert,” asking Republicans to serve as election judges and alternate judges.
“History has repeatedly shown that Democrats will do everything they can to buy, steal and cheat their way to victory at the ballot box,” the email stated. “It is up to us to ensure that every vote here in Tarrant County is PROTECTED and LEGAL.”
The email also asked for poll watchers for both early voting and Election Day.
“We especially need poll watchers in Democrat-controlled locations,” the email stated. “Voter ID is still required in Texas. We want to make sure OUR VOTER ID LAW IS FOLLOWED.”
Tarrant County Democratic Chairwoman Deborah Peoples said she was shocked that the local Republican Party would send out such a message.
“This is supposed to be the kinder, gentler Republican Party,” she said. “They say they’re reaching out to everybody in the party. Then the first opportunity they have, they turn around and say, ‘Those Democrats lie cheat and steal to win an election.’
“This is part of the loss of civility of political parties,” she said. “It’s really sad.”
The Democratic Party also sent out a note requesting election workers.
“The General Election is fast approaching,” wrote Vera Roberts, liaison for the local Democratic Party. “Election Judges, Alternate Judges and clerks are needed throughout Tarrant County to serve on Tuesday, November 8, 2016.”