Texas voter intimidation concerns prompt $25,000 reward

Local Hispanic leaders worried about senior citizen voter suppression in Tarrant County said Saturday that there will be a $25,000 reward and free legal services for anyone who comes forward and identifies the person who they claim intimidated them.

Former state Rep. Domingo Garcia, D-Dallas, said that if charges are filed and someone is arrested and convicted of voter suppression, the person who brought the case forward will receive the reward from the League of United Latin American Citizens.

“We believe there is a clear effort to rig the system [so Hispanics] don’t vote,” said Garcia, who was among the local leaders speaking during a news conference at Marine Park. “There is a voter intimidation and suppression campaign going on.

“It is illegal to intimidate a voter.”

This comes in the wake of state officials investigating an issue with Tarrant County mail-in ballots, which make it possible for overseas residents, people in the military and senior citizens to vote. Some say the investigation involves “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.

“Direct Action Texas’ investigation has collected and documented solid evidence of illegal, predatory ballot-harvesting operations in past Tarrant County elections,” Harris, who is with Direct Action Texas, said in a written statement. “Unlike the [United Hispanic Council], we have leaders from both democratic and republican camps rightly condemning these activities.

“I urge the UHC to join us in condemning illegal activities abusing the rights of voters, and to stop politicizing efforts to protect our community from criminal predators,” he said. “As Hillary Clinton has called for the FBI to release the evidence they claim to have, I call upon the UHC to release any evidence they have that support their complaint.”

The Hispanic council has filed a complaint with the Justice Department, saying the 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 council said in a news release.

Justice Department officials said Friday they have yet to receive the council’s complaint, which alleges that “vigilante-style visits by political activists” to a number of mainly Spanish-speaking senior citizens has led to voter suppression.

Early voting runs through Friday. Election Day is Nov. 8.

“This is the first shot in the political battle over Texas,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “Emerging Hispanic political groups are squaring off against conservative groups, the battlefront is the general election, and the weapon is voter turnout.

“Both political parties have a stake in higher voter turnout and in many close districts, the difference in high and medium turnout levels may mean the difference between winning and losing.”

Voter fraud concerns

Harris, who worked with Dallas businessman Monty Bennett to campaign against directors on the Tarrant Regional Water District board, 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 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” the secretary of state’s letter said might have been committed locally are: 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.

“Direct Action Texas looks forward to moving the criminal investigation forward to help protect the rights of voters,” Harris said in his statement.

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 Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, 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.

Romero said he has talked to at least a handful of people who have been visited by people asking questions about how they voted and whom they voted for, and who no longer want to cast ballots. He said anyone who feels they have been intimidated can call him at 817-233-5819.

Harris is promoting an “Election Integrity Tip Hotline” — 817-893-8502 — through which he’s offering up to a $5,000 reward for any election fraud-related tip that leads to a felony conviction.

United Hispanic Council spokesman Fernando Flores said: “Claims of massive voter fraud by Aaron Harris and Direct Action Texas are highly exaggerated. We have to protect our voting rights.

“When we see suppression, we speak up,” he said. “We must fight.”

Anna M. Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley