The Real Cheaters

Officials showed courage by cracking down on Dwaine Caraway's campaign

"I didn't feel like it was for him to come and take a ballot that I had voted on," she said. "He could have opened it to see who I had voted for, and if he didn't like it, he could throw it away."

How did he react when she refused to give him her ballot?

"He was kind of irritated. I felt like he was kind of pushy."

People familiar with this particular campaign tactic tell me that vote gatherers are usually paid by the ballot. At Mary Smith's house, they came in swarms. She said she hadn't been very aware of the election in the first place and wasn't sure who any of the candidates were. "I really didn't know too much about them," she told me.

Three separate teams of vote collectors had been buzzing around Mrs. Smith's house in the last few weeks, two in each team, six people in all, all of them competing to get her ballot for Caraway. She said she had been visited by "a young girl and a boy, maybe in their 20s," also by "the Spanish man and the tall black man," and also by a third team whose identity caught me by surprise--Pat Spears and another campaign worker named Mark Baker. Spears, of course, was the lady who had assured me only the day before that "Campaigns don't have people who go around and do that."

Mrs. Smith showed me the bottom half of an official Dallas County Elections Department application for an absentee ballot, torn off at the perforated line, with the names and phone numbers of Spears and Baker written in ball-point pen near the printed title, "Dallas County Elections Department." Mrs. Smith said Spears had instructed her to call her the moment she received her absentee ballot in the mail. I asked Mrs. Smith who Spears worked for.

"The county," she said immediately. "That's what she told me."

Before she could call Spears as instructed, the "Spanish man" and the tall black man arrived at her door and demanded that she produce her ballot. Then she says the Spanish man gave her instructions on how to vote "straight Democrat." City council elections in Dallas, of course, are non-partisan, so there is no way to vote by party at all.

"Miguel made me to know that we were Democrats," she said, "and that's what we were about. Miguel explained to me how to sign the envelope, because I'm on the Democratic side, always."

Then the Spanish man and the tall black man left. With her ballot.

"He was obligating about it," she said.

Marvin Collins, 69, was sitting on a wooden box in his garage, daubing dirt off a gasoline engine with a rag, when I visited him on Memorial Day. The vacant lot next-door was full of shiny new cars and pickups in a delicious haze of barbecue smoke. A dozen or more of his relatives were making preparations for a reunion.

I went to see him because he had filed a sworn affidavit with the county saying the Spanish man and the tall black man had taken his ballot from him, unmarked, after he had refused to mark it for Caraway in their presence. The ballot turned up later at the election department signed, sealed and voted.

I showed him a photocopy of the signature on his ballot envelope. He took his finger and traced the letters to show me that it was not his. "I don't do my M's like that, see, and I don't drag out the S like that on Collins."

Collins says he had never even applied for an absentee ballot and didn't know that one had arrived in his mail that day when the two men showed up. He was outside mowing his lawn.

"They said, 'Go inside and look in your mail. There's a brown envelope. Bring it out here.'"

He says he found the envelope, and the men told him to fill it out for Dwaine Caraway. "I told them, 'I ain't made up my mind yet.'" The men made a move for the ballot, and Collins let them have it.

I asked him why he had allowed them to snatch it.

"I'm going to tell you about myself," he said, dropping his voice so relatives passing back and forth with pitchers of tea and platters of sandwiches would not hear. "I suffer from short of breath. Asthma. I was real short of breath at that time when they come."

Only later, when Collins went to his regular polling place for early voting in person, did he find out that the rolls showed him as having already voted. Because he filed an affidavit saying his absentee ballot had been stolen from him and forged, he was able to vote in person, and his absentee ballot was thrown out.

He told me he had voted since he was a young man in Freestone County. "I paid the poll tax to vote," he said.

There were other terribly sad stories along the streets of Precinct 3128, and a lot of pain. Old people are embarrassed to admit their vulnerability.

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