Absentee Minded

Hey, Mr. Zillionaire Developer, got a big public project you want to sell? Black Dallas has the votes you need--dirt cheap.

In those 11 mother lode precincts, 80 percent or more of the registered voters are African-American, and 90 percent of those who voted early voted in favor of the arena.

In the arena election, there were no 80-percent-plus Hispanic precincts that produced early yes votes. There was one 80 percent or higher white precinct: It produced exactly one early yes vote.

The black organized precincts are where the votes are. In Precinct 3515, for example, in the crook of South Central Expressway where old South Dallas runs into the Bonton area, almost 8 percent of the precinct's 1,500 voters voted early, delivering 217 votes in favor of the arena--about 13 percent of the total victory margin. One fine morning recently, I took a walking tour down Colonial Avenue, which runs down the spine of Precinct 3515.

During the recent city council runoff, Ed Oakley (top) was painted as that nice, nice man who wouldn't stoop to badgering old folks for their absentee votes. His opponent, Dwaine Caraway (bottom), was that bad, bad man who did. Now it looks as if that picture may have been a tad one-sided.
Mark Graham
During the recent city council runoff, Ed Oakley (top) was painted as that nice, nice man who wouldn't stoop to badgering old folks for their absentee votes. His opponent, Dwaine Caraway (bottom), was that bad, bad man who did. Now it looks as if that picture may have been a tad one-sided.

This is homeowner and longtime-resident country. Squeezed between old two-story houses are brand-new ones being offered at $120,000. Lots of old people live here. I walked a list of addresses I got from the county showing every house on Colonial where someone had received a ballot by mail in the recent June 2 city council election. At each house, I said, "This is none of my business, but when you vote by mail, who picks up your ballot?"

Lewis Bizzell was out front on a metal chair, surrounded by old tires and some kind of machinery parts. He gave me a gap-toothed smile through a mask of wrinkles and said, "Well, you said you were a reporter. I guess that's your job, asking people what's none of your business."

He told me the same thing most people on Colonial told me. His ballots are picked up by "Felicia."

Doesn't know her last name. I do.

Felicia picks up those ballots like clockwork, at the home of Beulah Mae Cain, the home of Vernia Mae Ellis, the home of Allen Baston, at almost all of the houses up and down Colonial where elderly people vote by mail.

You may actually know Felicia a little bit yourself. In a terrific story on ballot fraud in The Dallas Morning News three weeks after the city council runoff, Scott Parks reported how the woman known only as Felicia had run off with a blind lady's ballot. The blind lady wasn't even sure she had voted yet when Felicia took her ballot and disappeared.

Later the lady's ballot was not counted because an official election committee determined that an apparent forgery had taken place on some of the paperwork.

Felicia is Felicia Petrie. I have not met her, in spite of trying for a month. I called many times and left messages with her co-workers. I even went to her office to try to find her but was met by her boss instead. Petrie works for Democratic state Representative Terri Hodge, who confirmed to me that her employee was the "Felicia" of Parks' story.

Hodge is on the state elections committee. She is a major power whenever the subject of absentee vote reform comes up in Austin. She also works as a paid political consultant in charge of absentee vote campaigns. For example, she picked up $4,000 from the James Fantroy campaign in the recent council elections.

I suspect that Felicia had nothing to do with forging a signature on the blind lady's ballot envelope. Why? Because now I know how you do this stuff. If you send the county a stack of applications for absentee ballots on which you have forged voters' names, you make photocopies of all your apps. When you go out to collect the ballots, you shuffle your photocopies into walking order.

Every time you hit a house, you look at your copy of the application. If you see that you forged a signature on that app, you know that you have to get the ballot away from the voter unsigned, so that you can forge a matching signature on the ballot envelope.

A master in this business who spoke to me on a strict not-for-attribution basis theorized that Felicia allowed the blind lady to sign her own ballot because Felicia must not have had a copy of the forged app.

"She's a seasoned worker," my source said. "She wouldn't make that mistake."

The larger point here is that a tiny handful of very organized precincts in black Southern Dallas can generate the margin of victory in a major citywide referendum, and they can do it in response to the direct prompting of a tiny coterie of black leaders.

Another master of Dallas early voting efforts who was willing to speak to me on condition that his name not appear in a story explained the inner commerce of early voting and choice precincts like the ones I had found with my spreadsheet. Over the years, he said, individual operatives have staked out their "personal" precincts where they send in applications to vote at home for people, then visit the people and assist them in voting, then either mail the ballots for the people or take them to be stockpiled at a central location.

"You have certain people who have done certain precincts for many years," he said. "There are groups of people who do this, and everybody knows that a certain precinct belongs to so-and-so."

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