Absentee Minded

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

It's a version of things that was repeated and confirmed to me over and over again by people familiar with the process. Tony Garrett, who often works for state Representative and former city Councilman Domingo Garcia, told me of operatives he knows who send fruit baskets and Christmas cards to their regular voters.

The term of art here is "vote" as a transitive verb, as in "Felicia votes the people on Colonial Avenue." Some of the operatives best known for "voting" people in specific precincts are ferociously possessive of their turf and proud of their work.

Representative Hodge, who dips her shoulders and jabs with one hand like a welterweight when she's mad, met me at her office in a restored one-story '30s-looking commercial building near Baylor hospital. I think her eyes were beginning to get shiny when she told me, "I will carry the election law book in my car, and until the law changes and says it is illegal to vote senior citizens at home, I will be voting them."

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.

So the prime precincts are there. And somebody is going to "vote" them.

Jan Gore says that's the point that Ed Oakley, for whom she worked in the council runoff, didn't seem to get. If you run in black Dallas, you cannot afford to ignore the organized precincts.

Gore says: "The fear is, who is going to vote these people?"

You or your opponent. Somebody pushes the button. In fact, because of the money involved, there may be people out there trying to gather up absentee ballots long before the candidate has had time even to think about it.

One bright morning, I go to the catalog section of the central library, the preferred meeting place of a former city council member, political consultant and force majeure, Sandra Crenshaw. I ask that we remove our meeting to a table upstairs in the Humanities Department, because all of the loony tunes on the first floor are making me nervous.

At our quiet table upstairs, Crenshaw winds up giving me a whispered rundown on all of the scams that go on in absentee voting. She tells me that she does not engage in absentee campaigns anymore because of legal risks involved, but she is very familiar with people who do and how they do it. Much of the game turns on the "72-hour list"--a list the county elections department is required by state law to publish every day of the names of people to whom ballots were mailed three days earlier.

"Once you see the ballots going out on the 72-hour list, then you deploy your team to those addresses," she whispers.

The game is to get there ahead of the other side and vote the people for your candidate. She holds up the palm of one hand like a ballot and pretends to scribble on it with the other. "Most of these old people, it's real easy. If you're working for candidate X, you say, 'Oh, yeah, you want to vote for Candidate Y, yes, ma'am,' and then you just scratch in the circle by X and seal up the envelope."

"Sometimes they'll ask, 'Well, what do the Democrats say?' So you just say, 'Oh, the Democrats are all for the arena.'"

Another favorite trick, she says, is to tell elderly voters that coloring in a certain dot on the ballot is a way to vote "straight Democrat," even in city council races, which are nonpartisan.

She also explained to me some of the madness at the end of the Caraway-Oakley campaign in which vote brokers were out there badgering old people to vote for Caraway even though the old people already wanted to vote for him. Crenshaw said that many of those brokers probably were operating without Caraway's knowledge but in competition with each other, trying to gather up ballots in order to hoard them and later sell them en masse to Caraway. Or to Oakley.

"Say the broker goes to Caraway with 1,500 ballots," she whispers. "He says, 'These votes are for you. I want $3 apiece for them.' Caraway says no. So he takes them to the other candidate. 'These votes are for Caraway. I want $3 apiece for them.' If the other candidate pays, the broker throws the ballots away."

Crenshaw even claims that in the recent city council race, one candidate's campaign was in such disarray that a vote broker was able to sell the same bundle of votes to him twice by working through different middlemen.

The person who put together the absentee effort for that nice, nice Ed Oakley was Jan Gore's son, Terrence Gore. Terrence Gore is a computer consultant who ran two years ago for city council but was defeated by the incumbent, Barbara Mallory Caraway, who is Dwaine Caraway's wife.

I certainly did not find my way to Terrence Gore, by the way, because either Ed Oakley or Laura Miller told me about his effort. They said not one word. The person who showed me that piece of the puzzle was Dwaine Caraway.

Beginning the day he lost the runoff election and continuing for the next month and a half, Caraway spent his time poring over official records of the election. Then he called me, as the author of the Bad, Bad Dwaine Caraway column, and asked me to meet him in his campaign office in a one-story commercial building on Corinth, next door to a cell phone place.

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