Bottle Rockets Downtown

A lawsuit complaining about election fraud could bust things wide open

The birth of the rule of law.

As my constitutional law professor used to tell us at the University of Michigan 125 years ago, "The purpose of the law is that we may all close both eyes when we go to bed at night."

Of course, back before they introduced democracy here in 1991, that is, before black activists Marvin Crenshaw and Roy Williams sued to force the end of the old at-large council elections system, corruption in Dallas was very white-shoe and dandified.

Roy Williams and other grassroots activists want to prove that rich people are stealing poor people's votes in Dallas.
Peter Calvin
Roy Williams and other grassroots activists want to prove that rich people are stealing poor people's votes in Dallas.

The Citizens Council, a private, semi-secret group of business leaders distantly related to the old white citizens councils, privately and secretly picked the city council. The only way to get ahead in this town was through business and social climbing. If you climbed the ladder, other guys above you gave you the business, and then when you got up there, you gave them the business, and you all climbed the ladder together--sort of a system of cluster-climbing.

When Crenshaw and Williams won the "14-1" lawsuit, the federal courts said we had to have a system of single-member districts so that every vote would count. What few people foresaw was that single votes were going to be worth a whole lot in districts where almost nobody went to the polls. The system of ballot fraud we have now in Dallas is a peculiarly local phenomenon, born of the fact that you can carry an election here with as few as 12 votes, as in one recent example.

All of a sudden, it's worth a whole lot to be able to go out and scam a couple of dozen absentee ballots.

Dallas County Judge Lee Jackson, who has ultimate authority over local elections, told me he draws blank stares and silence from county officials in other parts of the state when he asks them if they have problems with this kind of fraud.

"Shortly after the last election, I had a conference call with officials in eight to 10 counties around the state, and I said, 'Oh, by the way, are you having problems with campaigns using their own couriers to pick up absentee ballots and so on?' There was a long silence on the other end."

Extremely low turnout in poor and minority precincts here is one factor that makes ballot fraud worth doing. But another reason it happens is that we have this stupid nonpartisan system. Normally the best watchdogs are the two parties watchdogging each other. But in Dallas, we don't have organized, competitive groups in whose mutual interest it is to keep the system above-board.

The system of vote cheating that has evolved here began with some fairly ad hoc raggedy attempts at getting the votes of old folks 10 years ago. Now you have professional operatives who work from a per-vote fee schedule.

So after the fall of the at-large system, the guys who do the big deals--the multibillion-dollar river reclamations and the airports and the transit systems and the other major public works campaigns--saw two things out there on the map: First, they saw that they could no longer control things the old cluster-climb way. Second, they saw that there was a way to buy votes and swing elections pretty cheaply and efficiently through paid ballot fraud.

How long you figure it took them to do the wiring on that one?

And so now in this lawsuit what we're looking at is Henry Ford walking out of his garage with his hands on his hips and yelling, "Hey! Those guys stole my car!"

The lawsuits that have been filed contesting the last election are all cut-and-paste versions of the suit that Larry Duncan filed against incumbent Maxine Thornton-Reese, who defeated him.

There are some fairly hilarious results of this cut, paste and photocopy approach to legal research. Another person filing this kind of suit, for example, is former council member Steve Salazar, who has filed against Dr. Elba Garcia, who defeated him.

Salazar's suit claims that the election judges in his race handled certain records of the election improperly, just as Duncan has claimed against Thornton-Reese. But in Salazar's case, he was the incumbent, so he appointed all the election judges in his race, some of whom were his relatives.

If they really screwed up the records, he could just not invite them to his Labor Day barbecue next year. They'd get the message.

But don't underestimate people like Marvin Crenshaw and Roy Williams. They know this ground. Their real aim in filing suit is to kick up enough dust that the Justice Department finally will be forced to take notice.

Roy Williams said to me: "As long as there is voter fraud here at this magnitude, the citizen's vote doesn't count."

That's a bad thing, by the way.

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