By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
To hear some insiders tell it, finagling absentee ballots out of elderly voters has become routine practice in some of Dallas' thinly attended city council and school board races. This type of vote cheating, in which campaign workers magically show up at an elderly voter's doorstep the day he receives his ballot in the mail and offer to "help" him vote, is commonplace in minority districts, where some 30 to 40 percent of the votes come in the form of absentee ballots. With the city's typical low voter turnout, absentee ballots can easily make or break a campaign.
"The issue of absentee-ballot fraud has become a lot like the nuclear arms race," says Judge Lee Jackson, head of the Dallas County Commissioners Court. "It keeps escalating and escalating, and it's gotten to a point where people don't want to do it, but they have to in order to compete."
Not only do some campaigns treat absentee-ballot trickery as necessary to win, but it's also potentially lucrative for the paid ballot gatherers who, exploiting a loophole in state election laws, go door to door collecting absentee votes. According to Dallas political consultant Tony Garrett, who worked on the successful city council campaign of Dr. Elba Garcia and says he doesn't engage in what he considers a dishonest practice, local "ballot brokers" get a flat fee for each week of work. Another political insider says some brokers are paid by the ballot--at $5 or $7.50 a pop. The expense is carried on campaign finance reports as fees to political consultants. Some people, Garrett says, have made a career of the practice. "I know of one couple who made more than $15,000 during the last election cycle doing this sort of thing," he says.
In some cases, says Dallas City Councilman Ed Oakley, who beat Dwaine Caraway in a District 6 runoff tainted by allegations of absentee-ballot cheating involving Caraway campaign operatives (see Jim Schutze's column, "The Real Cheaters," June 7), the ballot brokers are working both sides of the fence. "In an election with five candidates, I've seen some of these people work for three or four candidates. They're basically taking money from all sides for the same vote," he says.
All of the possibilities for tampering with absentee ballots have led to widespread fudging of the laws, and sometimes outright cheating, in municipal elections, where a city council candidate can win a contested race by as few as 16 votes, as Maxine Thornton-Reese did in the May 5 general election against Larry Duncan. And some clear instances of cheating in last month's runoff elections have led Lee Jackson and Dallas County Elections Administrator Bruce Sherbet to draw up a list of reforms that would put the ballot brokers out of business and protect the elderly minority voters who are their usual prey. County election officials ended up disqualifying 142 absentee ballots collected by Caraway's campaign in the June 2 runoff because of irregularities.
Armed with a list of proposed reforms, which are detailed in a July 2 memo to the members of the Commissioners Court, Jackson and Sherbet are seeking sponsors to take up the issue during the 2003 legislative session and are considering possible alliances with Dallas state Representatives Steve Wolens, Terri Hodge and Jesse Jones. Hodge and Jones sit on the House Elections Committee. "Some campaigns are going all-out and getting a little too aggressive," Sherbet says. "Right now, we're seeing a vulnerable situation in which too many people have their hands in the process. We're hoping to launch a full-blown attack to circumvent the type of problems we've had in the past...right now the laws are very open-ended, and there needs to be some type of closure."
This so-called closure doesn't call for a radical departure from the current system but would provide additional safeguards. The proposed reforms include providing postage-paid envelopes to voters for returning ballots in an effort to eliminate the use of campaign-funded couriers, and deputizing volunteers, who, working for the city or county, would assist voters in filling out absentee-ballot requests or in marking an actual ballot.
In recent elections, including the Oakley-Caraway runoff, the use of couriers paid by specific campaigns to collect and deliver absentee ballots to election officials has raised questions about the origins of certain ballots, the means of collection and whether ballots have been tampered with en route to the election office. Oakley is convinced that much of the cheating stems from the use of couriers and would like to see the practice eliminated altogether. "There are 10 early-voting days for every election. People have plenty of time to vote if they want to, so there's no reason for couriers to be delivering last-minute ballots," he says.
The postage-paid envelopes would free voters from having to hand over their ballots to campaign operatives, as many have done in the past. In Dallas County, absentee ballots are oversized mail and require an additional 11 cents postage. When a ballot broker offers to save an elderly voter the expense and hassle of turning in his absentee ballot, many accept. As an added safeguard, Jackson has included a provision to allow for county-funded couriers during the five business days preceding an election. These couriers, having no stake in the outcome of the campaign, will decrease the amount of ballot tampering, Jackson hopes. Although Sherbet expects a challenge in getting money from city and county budgets to fund the courier service, he says the final price tag will be small compared with the total costs of the election.
A second provision calls for individuals to be deputized before being allowed to assist a voter with an absentee ballot. All too often, Sherbet says, ballot brokers are working for specific campaigns and have little, if any, accountability to the system. This leads to a host of questionable practices, including campaign workers falsely identifying themselves as county election officials; electioneering while an individual is in the process of voting; specifically telling a voter for whom they should vote; and taking ballots that are signed but unmarked and later filling in their candidate's name.
"Theoretically, a person should be able to vote in their home without someone standing there pressuring them about whom to vote for," Garrett says. "There shouldn't be any form of electioneering at the place of voting, be that at the polls or in the home. But how do you write that into law? What constitutes improper electioneering? It's a gray area...and there's really no way of enforcing it."
By becoming volunteer deputy election officials, individuals would be educated about proper and improper ballot collection practices and would be required to swear an oath. The current vote-collecting system could be dealt a fatal blow if the reforms pass, Jackson says, since any person deputized to help absentee voters wouldn't be allowed to accept any compensation for that work.
But, with absentee-ballot cheating such a time-honored tradition in Dallas, are reforms likely? Maybe, Garrett says. "If we can sustain the indignation for another 18 months, then I think we might see some changes."