Deep Doo-doo

One side or the other broke the law in a messy city council race, Dallas' top election official says

So many accusations were flying at the end of the District 1 Dallas City Council race, it wasn't clear who was blowing the whistle on whom, but Dallas County Elections Administrator Bruce Sherbet says there is no confusion about one thing: "Someone's going to get in trouble."

Speaking on Monday morning after a hectic Palm Beach-style weekend of counts and recounts, Sherbet said he had forwarded evidence to the Dallas County district attorney of what he said may be "clear fraud" in the city council election for District 1, which covers parts of West Dallas and Oak Cliff.

The first count of votes on the night of May 5 showed incumbent Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Steve Salazar the victor by a margin of three votes with all 42 precincts counted. But Sherbet said the first tally did not include a number of ballots that still had not been counted for various reasons, including mechanical error.

By late Sunday, when all of the 2,309 votes cast had been manually counted, Salazar had lost the District 1 seat to Dr. Elba Garcia, a dentist, by 41 votes.

At a news conference in the Flag Room of City Hall on Monday, Salazar said he would file a formal demand for a second manual recount. Salazar also said questions about so-called "canceled ballots" had been referred to the district attorney. He declined to say anything specific about the allegations, but he did make a wry reference to "Duval County," famous scene of past electoral chicanery in South Texas.

But who was accusing whom? It was not clear who had referred what to the district attorney and who stood to get burned by it. Speaking from the floor of the Texas House of Representatives on Monday evening, Dr. Garcia's husband, state Representative Domingo Garcia, himself a former Dallas City Council member, said he personally had been involved in the matters Salazar was talking about. But he said Salazar's camp committed the wrongdoing, not his wife's.

"There's a scam that's run by a member of Steve Salazar's campaign staff on senior citizens in the district," Garcia said. He accused the Salazar staff of bamboozling old people into giving them their blank absentee ballots. "Then they are voting the ballots for the people," Garcia said.

Domingo Garcia said it was he, not Salazar, who had referred the matter to the district attorney. "And we did it three weeks before the election, not election night," he said.

Garcia said he and a worker in his wife's campaign had approached a number of senior citizens whom they suspected might have been tricked out of their ballots. Of all those they approached, about 15 said they would sign an affidavit stating they wanted to cancel their absentee ballot.

The Texas election code, in chapter 84.032, provides that a person may sign an affidavit canceling his absentee ballot at any point up to three days before the election and may vote in person instead. Garcia says 11 of the 15 people who told him they had been tricked actually went to an early-voting polling place, canceled their ballots and voted in person instead.

At his news conference, Salazar seemed to imply that it was he who had complained about the cancellation of absentee ballots.

Whoever complained, for whatever reason, Sherbet said there is a strong probability that one side or the other was involved in vote fraud. "Some voters went to early-voting places and said, 'I did not vote my ballot. Somebody else took my ballot and told me to sign my name on the carrier envelope.' That is clear fraud," Sherbet said.

But Sherbet also said the Garcia side of the election could find itself in serious trouble if the charges of ballot manipulation were fabricated in order to change people's votes. "Either someone is manipulating the process or someone is manipulating the voters."

Either way, he said, one of the sides may face criminal prosecution.

And things could get even more exciting. Both camps hinted darkly of many other charges that may come to light if the contest is not settled soon. A week before the election, the Dallas Observer revealed that 11 members of Salazar's extended family were registered to vote from his parents' address in his home precinct, even though his parents said none of them lived there (see "The Salazar Doctrine," May 7.) Salazar and his parents said they could not remember where any of their relatives actually lived.

Members of Dr. Garcia's campaign staff indicated that the residency issue is among several that may or may not go to the district attorney, depending on how quickly things are resolved.

Dr. Garcia, the apparent victor, said she thought Salazar was merely having trouble accepting defeat. "I believe I won," she said. "We have had a recount already. It was manual, ballot by ballot, fair and square. In my opinion, I won, and I am ready to begin serving the people of District 1."

At his news conference, Salazar was asked if his behavior might be viewed by voters as that of a sore loser.

"We are concerned regarding a complete and accurate count," he said. "We need a manual count to assure that early voting and absentee votes are counted. We have had several different 100 percent totals. On May 6 at 12:27 a.m., with 100 percent of the votes counted, they did give me the victory, with 1,106 votes to 1,103."

 
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