Texas Politics

Tallying 2016 voting complaints: Scare tactics, equipment glitches, confusion

Texas and Tarrant County saw a record-breaking number of early voters last November, smashing past records from the historic 2008 presidential election as around 4.5 million people — including more than half a million local voters — went to the polls.
Texas and Tarrant County saw a record-breaking number of early voters last November, smashing past records from the historic 2008 presidential election as around 4.5 million people — including more than half a million local voters — went to the polls. pmoseley@star-telegram.com

Nearly 9 million Texans headed to the polls in November to weigh in on the fierce battle for the White House — and many stumbled upon roadblocks while trying to cast their votes.

Texas voters faced long lines, equipment glitches, intimidation — and confusion over the state’s Voter ID law and whether photo IDs were still required — according to a new report, Texas Election Protection 2016.

“Unfortunately, through the state, voters faced numerous obstacles that complicated the process,” said Beth Stevens, voting rights director at the Texas Civil Rights Project that compiled the report. “We heard directly from thousands of voters about the barriers they faced in our electoral system.

“Texans deserved better.”

More than 4,000 complaints or incidents were logged statewide last year by the group’s Election Protection Coalition and put into a database. Complaints came in various forms, from voter hotlines to questions asked of field volunteers.

The second largest number of complaints, 495, came from Tarrant County.

Harris County had the most, at 895, and Dallas County had the third most reported problems, at 373, the report showed.

“Presidential elections bring people out who normally wouldn’t vote,” said Stephen Vickers, Tarrant County’s new elections administrator. “They may only vote every four years.”

Tarrant County voters turned out in record numbers last year, smashing early voting records and overall propelling nearly 63 percent of local voters to the polls in November, local records show.

“With a larger number of voters, there’s a larger number of problems,” Vickers said. “The more people who touch the machines, the bigger the chance there will be someone who doesn’t know how to use it.”

Tarrant issues

A list of the Tarrant County voter complaints was not available from the Texas Civil Rights Project, but a variety of problems were discovered here last year. Among them:

Changing polling sites: Election Day polling sites often differ from early voting sites. As a result, some people who don’t check their polling location before heading out the door end up at the wrong location. That was the case on Election Day in Keller, for example, when quite a few local voters headed to Keller Town Hall, a popular early voting site, and were turned away.

Machine glitches: During early voting, one Arlington voter’s complaint about trying to cast a straight-party Republican vote — but seeing her presidential vote flip to Democrat — blew up on social media after the incident was posted on Facebook. Tarrant County election officials were swamped with calls from voters either asking if it could happen, or saying it happened to a friend of a friend.

“None of it could be proven,” Vickers said. “Everyone we talked to, except for a few, said they got the information second-hand and it didn’t happen to them.”

In the case of the Arlington woman, election workers voided her ballot and moved her to another machine where she cast the vote she wanted. They checked the equipment, found no problems and couldn’t replicate the error.

Voter ID: Photo ID requirements were still in place in Texas on Election Day, even though a court ruled that the state’s Voter ID law violated the Voting Rights Act. One move to ease the law let voters without photo IDs sign “reasonable impediment declaration” forms explaining why they weren’t able to get an ID before the election. Once those voters signed the form, and produced another form of ID, they were allowed to vote.

After the election, Tarrant County election officials turned over 15 questionable affidavits to the Tarrant County district attorney’s office. “After review of the forms, it was determined that no charges would be filed,” said Samantha Jordan, a spokeswoman with the DA’s office.

Voter fraud: In February, Rosa Maria Ortega — a U.S. resident, green-card holder and Grand Prairie mother of four — was sentenced to eight years in prison after being convicted by a Tarrant County jury on two felony counts of illegal voting. The case and stiff penalty drew national attention, particularly because she faces deportation if her ongoing appeal is not successful.

The next month, Crystal Mason was indicted in Tarrant County on a charge of illegally voting in the 2016 presidential election. The 41-year-old Rendon woman voted even though she was on supervised release for a conviction of conspiracy to defraud the government in 2012, for which she was sentenced to five years in federal prison. Mason said she wasn’t told when released from prison that she could not vote while on supervised release.

Another investigation focusing on potential voter fraud regarding mail-in ballots is believed to still be underway in Tarrant County.

Mail-in ballots let people vote from their homes without ID or verification of identity. At issue is how often people assist others, or physically help by witnessing, with filling out applications for mail-in ballots or the ballots themselves.

Local officials said last year that workers with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office were here gathering paperwork and interviewing potential witnesses. The attorney general’s office has declined to “confirm or deny investigations” or comment on the situation.

Gov. Greg Abbott recently called on state Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, and state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, to lead the effort of wiping out mail in voter fraud in Texas during the special session that starts July 18.

Statewide problems

The new election report shows that problems reported statewide run the gamut from voter intimidation to registration problems. And there’s no way to know how many other problems weren’t reported.

More than half the reports came from Latino/Hispanic voters, followed by nearly 25 percent from white voters and 20 percent from black voters, the report shows.

Some addressed voter registration questions. “Hundreds of callers could not be found on Texas’ voter rolls due to slight discrepancies in names or addresses,” the report showed. “Dozens of Texans called for help because they believed they were registered, but when they arrived at the polls, they were turned away because they were not on the rolls.”

Still more complaints addressed long wait times.

While many Tarrant County voters reported lines at polling sites, it wasn’t even close to the situation in nearby Denton County, where several scanning machines were left in “test mode” and wouldn’t count or accept paper ballots.

In the end, officials did three recounts of the votes. And just recently, Denton County officials decided to switch to an all paper system.

A Grand Prairie polling site opened late on Election Day due to the sudden death of an election judge. That polling place stayed open late under the order of Dallas County officials.

And “incredibly, on Election Day, voters at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black university northwest of Houston with a horrible history of voter suppression by local officials, had to wait in excess of three hours in order to cast a ballot,” the report stated.

Some voters said they experienced voter intimidation.

In counties ranging from Denton to Navarro, some voters reported that they felt intimidated by others who paced up and down voter lines, some even writing down notes about the voters themselves.

In Spring, an armed man carried a sign at a polling place that stated, “Fagots Vote Democrat” before he was removed from the site.

And some voters said they were intimidated when fellow Texans “wore candidate T-shirts and hung out near the polling line making loud and aggressive comments against opposing candidates,” according to the report.

“It is clear voter intimidation tactics are alive, well and succeeding in Texas,” the report stated.

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley