As record early voting continues, local Hispanic leaders in the Democratic Party are asking federal officials to investigate complaints of senior citizens in Tarrant County being intimidated by “vigilante-style” tactics, leaving some too afraid to vote either by mail or in person.
The United Hispanic Council has filed a complaint with the Justice Department, saying a Republican-led investigation of potential voter fraud here has “left a trail of confused and upset seniors who are now afraid of voting or participating via the absentee ballot process,” the organization said in a news release.
“This is voter suppression,” said Fort Worth Councilman Sal Espino, who is among those concerned about the issue. “When these people go talk to seniors, they are accusing them of doing something wrong, making it seem as though they shouldn’t have voted by mail.
“They are making people uncomfortable with exercising their right to vote. Now they don’t want to vote. They are scared they are doing something wrong.”
This comes as a record number of Texas voters continue flocking to the polls.
In the first four days of early voting, more than 1.7 million Texans in the state’s 15 largest counties — including nearly 200,000 Tarrant County voters — cast ballots in person or by mail. That’s 18.25 percent of the state’s registered voters.
The allegations of voter suppression follow the news that state officials have been in Tarrant County investigating a Republican complaint about mail-in ballots, potentially looking at concerns about “vote harvesting,” in which people fill out and return other people’s ballots.
Hispanic leaders say they are concerned about the impact of the investigation, led by Republican political consultant Aaron Harris, who has filed complaints with the state citing election concerns in Tarrant County.
“Well it’s finally come to this,” Harris posted on Facebook after learning about the complaint filed with the Justice Department. “So I expose the fraud, and those who are stealing the votes and suppressing voters want to sue me. They are going to be very surprised when the facts come out in this one.
“Strap in, this is going to be a fun ride.”
Justice Department officials said Friday that they had not received the United Hispanic Council complaint, which alleges that “vigilante-style visits by political activists” to a number of mainly Spanish-speaking senior citizens has led to voter suppression.
“The Justice Department will review the request as soon as we receive it,” a spokesman said.
The United Hispanic Council and local officials plan to elaborate about the local problems at a gathering at noon Saturday in north Fort Worth.
Early voting runs through Nov. 4. Election Day is Nov. 8.
Voter fraud concerns
Harris, who worked with Dallas businessman Monty Bennett to campaign against directors on the Tarrant Regional Water District board, did not return Star-Telegram telephone calls Friday seeking comment.
He has given public speeches talking about how he and his team sifted through thousands of mail-in ballots.
He claims they found cases where voter signatures on envelopes that contain ballots didn’t match the signatures on requests for mail-in ballots. He referred to some campaign workers who allegedly removed ballots from voters’ mailboxes and filled out the forms themselves.
And he referred to a Jan. 22, 2016, letter posted online in which the Texas secretary of state’s office referred his “allegations of criminal activity in Tarrant County” to the Texas attorney general’s office.
Among the “potential crimes” that the letter said might have been committed locally: failure to comply as a witness, improperly serving as a witness for multiple voters, forgery and tampering with a governmental record, unlawful possession of a carrier envelope and improper assistance, according to the letter.
Aaron Harris is promoting an “Election Integrity Tip Hotline” — 817-893-8502 — offering a reward up to $5,000 for any election-fraud-related tip that leads to a felony conviction.
Harris is promoting an “Election Integrity Tip Hotline” — 817-893-8502 — through which he’s offering a reward up to $5,000 for any election-fraud-related tip that leads to a felony conviction.
People working this type of investigation must walk a fine line, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
“Republicans or other investigators may not have intended to intimidate voters, but making these inquiries has the effect of making vulnerable people feel like they are being watched,” he said. “This can unintentionally suppress a voter’s willingness to participate. Investigators need to proceed cautiously as to not create any residual civic damage.”
Critics say the GOP investigation is a political ploy.
“This coincides with [Donald] Trump’s fear of election rigging and Republicans are afraid they might lose Texas,” said Sergio De Leon, a Tarrant County justice of the peace. “You have people raising all these allegations that aren’t true.
This is a situation where the far right wing conservatives fear the Latino vote.
Tarrant County Justice of the Peace Sergio De Leon
“This is a situation where the far right wing conservatives fear the Latino vote,” he said. “They know, as the Latino vote grows, it represents a mighty force to be reckoned with.”
Complaints from seniors
State Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, and other local Hispanic leaders are concerned about how the Harris investigation is affecting voters.
“We began getting complaints from seniors,” he said. “I literally had a senior tell me: ‘I don’t need any help anymore. I’m scared. Thank you for everything. We love you and don’t want anything to happen to you because of what these people are saying.’”
Romero, who began talking to voters about the Harris investigation last weekend, said he’s concerned about Texans’ private property rights.
[Harris] can claim voter fraud, but one thing you don’t have the right to do is walk on people’s private property and interrogate them about how and who they voted for and insinuate that they’ve done something illegal by how they voted.
State Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth
“We are going to follow the evidence and what we’ve already found is disturbing,” he said. “[Harris] can claim voter fraud, but one thing you don’t have the right to do is walk on people’s private property and interrogate them about how and who they voted for and insinuate that they’ve done something illegal by how they voted.
“We want to get the information out to seniors that they can call the authorities and ask those people to leave their private property. And they need to vote.”
Harris said he has been looking into voter concerns, including those expressed by former state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, who lost his re-election bid to Romero two years ago by 111 votes.
Burnam filed a lawsuit in April 2014 challenging the results, saying he believed that an “illegal computerized-signature vote-by-mail operation” was run by Romero, who now represents 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.
If you have any election related questions, call the Tarrant County Elections Administration at 817-831-8683.