Vote Early, Vote Often

The story behind the failed Caraway campaign is both farce and tragedy

So I put on my thinking cap. And I ask myself: all of this vote-cheating that cropped up in the recent District 6 city council runoff election between Dwaine Caraway and Ed Oakley. Did that just come out of nowhere?

Did people just out of the blue start cheating elderly citizens out of their absentee ballots? Was it an anomalous response to atmospheric conditions? An unexplained outbreak of bamboozling?

Or how about this, Jim? Maybe what happened in the June 2 runoff election (see "The Real Cheaters," June 7) was that people who have been doing this stuff all along just got caught for a change. Maybe the whole thing was an accidental peek at a well-organized system of vote-cheating that has been corrupting elections in this city for some time.

City Elections Administrator Brooks Love gave Dwaine Caraway a break on some of the absentee ballots his campaign collected but had to toss a bunch of the rest of them out.
Mark Graham
City Elections Administrator Brooks Love gave Dwaine Caraway a break on some of the absentee ballots his campaign collected but had to toss a bunch of the rest of them out.

Why would such a system exist in the city that works? Who would allow it? I have a little list.

By very narrow margins in recent years, the World's-Biggest-Ball-of-String (WBBS) promoters downtown--the people who build sports palaces for the rich, zany Calatrava bridges, under-used toll roads, lavish Olympic venues and other urban follies--have won city elections that were worth billions of dollars to them.

In the elections that authorized those deals, the white middle class tended to vote no, but narrowly no. The day was carried for the WBBS guys, barely, by stitching together the white voters who did vote yes with a strong yes vote in the minority precincts.

In fact, we've had a genuine political phenomenon here in recent years of poor African-American voters feeling a sudden, counter-intuitive political kinship with people like Ross Perot Jr. I don't know why somebody hasn't come in from the national press and done a big story: "Poorest voters support Googleplexionaire Robber Barons in Weird Dallas-only Syndrome."

Now in the wake of the June 2 debacle, in which county election authorities threw out more than 150 absentee ballots gathered by the Caraway campaign, I am not the only one wondering if our city may have developed an entrenched system of voter fraud because that system serves certain people's key interests at certain key moments.

Nancy Moffat, a volunteer poll-watcher who overlooked the absentee ballot count for the campaign of successful District 6 candidate Ed Oakley, found herself wondering about it while she stood there witnessing the absentee vote-counting rodeo at the Dallas County Elections Department on June 2.

"Could you envisage going back and looking at the arena election and the Trinity River election and finding these same things?" she asked me last week. "That just makes me sick to my stomach."

What Moffat found in the election was a specific form of ballot abuse that apparently has become endemic in Dallas. Using lists that must be published by law, organized teams of "vote-brokers," people who do this stuff for a living, are able to show up at an elderly voter's house the same day an absentee ballot is delivered by U.S. Mail.

The brokers talk the voter into voting for the candidate who hired them. Then they talk the voter into giving them the ballot. They hoard the ballots they have collected, waiting to turn them in until the last day, so that the opposing campaign can't see from whom they've gotten ballots and can't check up on how they did it.

So Moffat is down at election headquarters on Saturday, June 2, for the runoff election, insisting that election officials throw out certain absentee ballots. Moffat had spent two days at the elections office on Stemmons Freeway doing something she really hated: trying to get people's ballots thrown out.

"As I was challenging each of these ballots, it was not an easy thing for me to do, because I believe so strongly in people having the right to vote. I believe in the sanctity of the vote, and I was sickened by how it has been smeared in this process."

In spite of her qualms, Moffat was fighting to get certain absentee ballots thrown out because the ballots were being delivered to the elections department in a manner that violated state law. And before you decide this sounds nitpicky and technical, you should know that the rules about pickup and delivery of absentee ballots were written by the Legislature in an unsuccessful attempt to end exactly the kind of ballot abuse we still have in Dallas.

State Representative Jerry Madden, a Plano Republican, is a member of the House elections committee and helped craft the rules Moffat was using to challenge ballots. "We think it's very dubious when a campaign gathers ballots, and it leads to fraud and abuse," Madden told me. "Our intent in the Legislature has been that campaigns and political parties should not be allowed to go gather up people's ballots."

For that reason, the statute includes specific provisions about who can deliver an absentee ballot to elections officials and where a courier can go to pick up the ballots before bringing them to officials. The law says the courier has to be a real courier, not a campaign worker, and he can't go to a campaign office to pick up bundles of ballots. If he does, the ballots are not to be counted.

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