Bottle Rockets Downtown

A lawsuit complaining about election fraud could bust things wide open

Gee, I don't even know how to tell you how much fun this could be. Just pull out your folding chairs, pop up some corn and get the kids out on the lawn. I think it may be time to watch the fireworks downtown.

A group of stalwart grassroots community organizers has filed a lawsuit that just might bust the deal wide open at Dallas City Hall. They claim that the elections process in this burg is rife with corruption.

Now, I'm not going to tell you that this is the kind of lawsuit they're going to be pulling off the shelf to admire at Harvard 100 years from now. I don't think the plaintiffs would tell you that, either.

It's a little rough around the edges. It's a cut-and-paste job. As a matter of fact, when I pulled the file downtown, I could actually see the lines where they had cut and pasted.

But the part of it that I especially admire--what promises the most fun--is that this lawsuit, which alleges all sorts of election fraud and ballot fraud and general chicanery in the election process, involves some individuals who really know what they're talking about.

I'm trying to put this delicately.

And I am definitely not talking about everybody in the deal. There are several people involved in this suit who are so honest, if they found a quarter in the pay phone, they would advertise. Put up signs on the telephone poles. But certain other people involved in the filing of this lawsuit, which alleges ballot skulduggery...

OK, imagine this. Imagine if Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came into town and started bucking their horses and shooting their weapons in the air and yahooing and kicking up dust, and when the sheriff went out to ask what was going on, they said, "We feel that certain individuals may have been making untimely and improper withdrawals from the bank."

They would know what they were talking about, right? And if it ever got to the point of a trial or an inquest or a hearing or something, they could probably provide a lot of specific examples of how people might actually make an improper withdrawal. They could write the cookbook for it.

It would make for juicy testimony, wouldn't it?

We're on the same page now, I can tell. And we don't have to embarrass anybody with unnecessary specificity.

The main plaintiffs in this matter (there are others) are four well-known grassroots community activists: Marvin Crenshaw, Sandra Crenshaw, Jurline Hollins and Roy Williams, in alphabetical billing. These also happen to be city council candidates who were soundly defeated in the recent elections. They are challenging the results by which the opponents in each of their separate contests defeated them.

They have all thrown in together as plaintiffs, even though their claims are against different defendants in different elections. Marvin Crenshaw told me that their filing is a "class-action lawsuit."

I'm not a lawyer. I don't know about the action in this lawsuit, but I'll say this: As far as I'm concerned, it's got class.

The plaintiffs allege that there is an entrenched, organized system of vote fraud in Dallas, centered on but not exclusive to the abuse of the absentee-ballot process, and that this system is dominated by and operated for the benefit of the big money interests downtown.

Now here is where things get a bit complicated. I don't think any of these plaintiffs would claim that the big money interests downtown thought this system up or could have thought it up in a million years. In fact, I think some of them might even admit...OK, let's not be coy. I know some of them would admit, off the record, not for attribution, behind closed doors, with the curtains drawn and all that stuff, that they thought it up.

When I called people about it, there was even an amount of prideful chortling on the phone, as when people described things like, "the game we called 'Follow the Mailman,'" or the fine art of steaming open absentee ballots to see which ones need to be filed in the trash bin.

But the grand thing is this. They see the error of their ways.

And now they want justice.

Justice, as the prospectors used to say of gold, is where you find it.

The plaintiffs, in talking about their suit, don't make specific allegations against Mayor Ron Kirk or the Dallas Citizens Council or the Breakfast Group. But they do say that a system in which votes are on the block and available to the highest bidder is one in which poor people can never win. Even if poor people invented the system originally.

"Ron Kirk is always going to win in that situation," Marvin Crenshaw told me, "because he has access to the money. That's how it works. Ron Kirk is the front man, and the Citizens Council supplies the money."

I shiver with awe. I think we may be witnessing, in the long, difficult history of Dallas, Texas, a moment of supreme and unparalleled importance:

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.

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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