Absentee Minded

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

Caraway unlocks the front door and shows me into a big empty room with campaign posters on the wall. At one end of the room is a long table covered with documents, neatly stacked in order of presentation.

"Here," he says, showing me a receipt from the top of the pile. "This shows Terrence Gore going into the election department on May 19 and signing for 1,000 blank applications. Then on May 23, he picks up another 1,000 apps."

Caraway shows me his next piece of evidence: a receipt for 278 applications for ballots, filled out and signed by voters, delivered to the elections department on May 25, a Friday. That means Gore sent in 278 applications in one bag. The next paper he shows me is a list from the county elections department showing that all of those 278 applications were processed that day and the ballots mailed by the end of the day.

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.

Now we have an interesting situation. According to state law and normal practice, the elections department would have published a list on the following Monday, 72 hours later, of all those 278 addresses to which it had sent ballots. But because of the long holiday weekend, the list could not be published until Tuesday.

What difference does that make? It makes 24 hours' difference. Sandra Crenshaw already has explained to me that everybody in Southern Dallas watches those 72-hour lists of people who have been sent ballots like hawks so that they can run out and try to vote the people on the list before the other team gets to them. In that kind of closely fought battle, a 24-hour blackout is a huge advantage.

So this Terrence Gore guy must be pretty slick.

Gore meets me in his office in the Bill J. Priest Institute for Economic Development, a business incubator program run by the Dallas County Community College District in a handsome brick campus on Corinth Street in old South Dallas. His small two-room suite is stacked with unpacked boxes and phone equipment on the floor.

Gore, who is black, tells me he believes the starting place for people who want to manipulate the elderly African-American home-bound vote on referendum issues is the fact that most of the elderly really couldn't care less about those issues in the first place:

"On the arena deal, most people didn't care. They weren't ever going to go to any Mavericks games, and they didn't understand the ramifications of the money."

In the meantime, he says, the elderly voters do like to be coddled by the people who come to collect their ballots, who may be the only visitors they see for weeks or even months.

"There is a control factor that goes on. The elderly voters are catered to like children, and, when it comes to voting, they behave as such.

"They'll tell you, 'Oh, I just gave my ballot to so-and-so, that's the way things are done.' And you say, 'No, Miss T, that's not the way things are done.' They say, 'They're going to put whoever they want in office anyway.'

"They're so used to these people coming by, you know what? They don't even bother with the trouble of filling the ballots out, especially the ones with poor eyesight and hearing. And the people just prey on them like vultures on a dead horse. It's sickening."

Gore believes the passivity of elderly black voters has allowed big-ticket promoters to "vote" them in ways that are contrary to their true interests. He worked against passage of the Trinity River bond package, which won narrowly in a May 2, 1998, referendum, by trying to explain to black voters how the project would hurt them.

"I told them why it's a bad deal. I spent a lot of time talking about the money that could have been used to build more parks and municipal venues in Southern Dallas. I told them that you have to look at whether the city cares about you."

But when the votes were counted, the pattern was an almost perfect mirror of what happened on the arena vote six months earlier. Whites and Hispanics voted it down decisively, but the mother lode precincts in Oak Cliff and Southern Dallas voted it up by 75 percent and better--enough for the Trinity River proponents to squeak it through with a margin of 2,357 votes of 73,675 votes cast.

Sandra Crenshaw has testified under oath in a legislative hearing that the average price of a brokered absentee vote in Southern Dallas is about $5. Other sources I spoke to for this story said the price can float up as high as $10 or as low as $3, but that Crenshaw's number is a good average.

That would put the cost of the margin of victory in the river election at less than $12,000.

In between bites from a fast-food sandwich he brought with him to our meeting, Terrence Gore explains the 24-hour edge. He timed his operation to the holiday weekend so that he and a team could go out and get the ballots voted and mailed before the hoard of opposition operatives and free-booters descended on them.

"We upset the structure which most of them were counting on," he tells me. "We set it up so that we knew what the mailman was going to do; we knew when the ballots were going to hit; and we could get the ballots all processed and returned before the list even comes out."

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