By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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.
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.
Now I have to fill you in on another little aspect of this story that hasn't received any public attention until now. Do you wonder why there was anybody at all watching on election day to see if the absentee ballots were coming in the right way? I have two words to offer you:
City council member Miller was the major muscle on this issue. She, and many others on the council, had heard the rumors leading up to the runoff that Caraway was trying to steal the election through absentee-ballot trickery. So she jumped into the effort to challenge Caraway's absentee ballots up to her neck, behind the scenes, from the beginning. She enlisted a lawyer who volunteered his time, as well as a private investigator and film crew hired by the lawyer to stake out Caraway's campaign office. On two occasions, people connected with Miller or Oakley barged into the Caraway office at 1418 Bonnie View in order to prove that it was indeed a campaign office. At Miller's urging, the Oakley campaign got more militant about the issue and began posting volunteers such as Moffat at key places.
The goal was to make sure Caraway didn't get away with breaking the law by shipping in a big truckload of absentee ballots from a stash at one of his campaign offices. But there was one big factor the Miller/Caraway forces hadn't figured on. Caraway had no idea anybody was trying to catch him. He must have assumed it was business as usual, the way it's been done in Dallas for years.
Let me explain. Try to get this picture. The Caraway people keep getting raided by unidentified strangers. And they were being staked out all weekend. They must have been peeping out through the curtains: "No, the FBI doesn't drive Mercedes station wagons. That looks more like Laura Miller to me. I think she's got her kids with her."
But did they get it? Did they figure out that something might be about to happen?
Now it's Zero Hour. And by the way, I have this story from Nancy Moffat, County Elections Director Bruce Sherbet, City Secretary Shirley Acy and Oakley campaign manager David Marquis, all of whom I interviewed separately. The Caraway people told me he would not comment.
Moffatt is in place at Dallas County election headquarters along with several other very keyed-up Oakleyites, waiting for Dwaine Caraway's sneaky agents to make their big play with the ballots. The elevator door opens. Off steps a "courier," but instead of a nefarious fake UPS uniform, he's wearing a Dwaine Caraway T-shirt. He is accompanied by a woman and a small child and is toting a big U.S. Postal Service box of absentee ballots.
Moffat steps up to the guy and says, "Where did all these ballots come from?"
"Oh, from Dwaine Caraway," he says.
Wanting to make sure all of the Elections Department employees in the room hear it again, Moffat engages the man in conversation--not exactly the rubber hose treatment. She asks if the ballots came from the Caraway office at 1418 Bonnie View.
The guy is very pleasant, very upbeat. He says, "Yeah, the office at 1418 Bonnie View. That's one of the main offices."
Now here's the kicker. Even though the man had just confessed in front of everybody that he had picked up this bundle of 160 ballots at a Caraway campaign office, the ballots were counted anyway, because the Caraway campaign had put a different address on the guy's courier slip. Nobody was prepared to prove that the address on the slip was a campaign office. And Dallas City Elections Administrator Brooks Love, along with his boss, City Secretary Shirley Acy, ruled that the guy's statement that he had picked up the box of ballots at 1418 Bonnie View was "hearsay."
I don't think it's hearsay when the guy says it himself. I think it's more like "Say here." But let's not be lawyers.
Election officials did throw out approximately 150 absentee ballots brought in by Caraway couriers in other shipments. On those, the Caraway campaign had thoughtfully inscribed the 1418 Bonnie View address on the courier slip.
So let's add this up. "Couriers" come in wearing Caraway T-shirts. In some cases they even bring paperwork showing they have picked up the ballots at a Caraway office. And remember: This work is being carried out by "professionals."
Here's the point. This kind of ballot chicanery takes place in Dallas elections on a wholesale basis, with complete impunity and total arrogance. It has been so easy to get away with in the past that the people doing it don't even bother to hide. The only reason anybody even knows about it this time is because Miller went on a major military tear.
So what does all of this tell you about the legitimacy of the big decisions that have been made around here in the last several years? How about the Trinity River vote, which will obligate this city financially for decades to come and may change the geography of the region forever? Do we wonder where those ballots came from? Do we all have our thinking caps on?