Fixing the Fixers

Dallas makes slow but steady progress in cleaning up mail-in ballots

Political insiders always suspected that ballots mailed to certain parts of Southern Dallas were for sale. They knew the blind, the elderly and the infirm--mostly black--were told how to vote by friendly and helpful campaign workers. And they knew the ballots were sent to and collected from at-home voters by campaign workers for bulk delivery to the county's elections office, often strategically timed for the 11th hour of an election.

Voting by mail from home is not supposed to be that way. Many Dallas politicos always knew that, too. The vote-by-mail system is intended to make it possible for shut-ins or the elderly to cast a vote from home and also to allow those living away from their permanent place of residence to vote.

Mail-in ballots are supposed to be marked in private and without coaching, sealed and mailed back to the county with only the help of postage stamps and a letter carrier.

It hasn't worked that way for at least 20 years, and untold numbers of low-turnout elections have probably been influenced by middlemen campaign workers, says Bruce Sherbet, Dallas County elections administrator, who has been in the elections office since 1980. That's just the way it's been in Dallas, he says.

"I've seen [mail-in ballots] as high as almost 50 percent of the vote," Sherbet says. "Now you see a clear picture why that can make or break. In fact, in that election, the candidate that lost had received the most votes on Election Day and the most votes in early voting, in-person voting, but lost the election because the mail-in was so one-sided."

The practice of manipulating mail-in ballots does not heavily influence large, citywide elections, but it can have a dramatic impact on smaller or low-turnout elections, he says.

"The elections that this really affects, these absentee irregularities that we're dealing with, affect city elections, school district elections, primary elections, community college district elections, low-turnout elections," he says. "Low turnout, I would say, is 10 percent or less. It depends on which jurisdiction...You could be talking 1,200 voters or 1,500 voters."

An aggressive investigation by the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, which resulted in last week's indictment of campaign worker Felicia Ann Pitre, seems to indicate that business as usual in Southern Dallas politics may finally be about to change.

"There are clearly people who are breaking the law, and until now no one has been called to the carpet," says Eric Mountin, chief prosecutor of the public integrity section of the Dallas County District Attorney's Office. "We're serious about this."

Last week's indictment--which had nothing to do with the hotly contested mayoral race--and a concurrent grand jury investigation threaten to churn up the staid system that regularly provided candidates guaranteed votes for a price.

Pitre, who is charged with tampering with a government record and unlawful assistance to a voter, turned herself in to authorities last week. She was released after posting a $1,500 bond for tampering and $500 for unlawful assistance, Mountin says.

Tampering is a third-degree felony that carries a penalty of two to 10 years in prison with a maximum fine of $10,000. Unlawful assistance carries a fine of up to 180 days in jail and a maximum $2,000 fine. Pitre is an administrative assistant for state Representative Terri Hodge, a Dallas Democrat. Pitre declined to comment.

The irregularities in voting practices were first reported by the Dallas Observer in early June by columnist Jim Schutze. In two successive weeks ("The Real Cheaters," June 7, and "Vote Early, Vote Often," June 14) he told the city how Dwaine Caraway's District 6 city council campaign tried to influence the outcome of the race by collecting vote-by-mail ballots from homes in Southern Dallas.

"Now in the wake of the June 2 debacle, in which county election authorities threw out more than 150 absentee ballots gathered by the Caraway campaign, I am not the only one wondering if our city may have developed an entrenched system of voter fraud because that system serves certain people's key interests at certain key moments," Schutze wrote.

Ed Oakley, who beat Caraway in that council race, says Southern Dallas mail-in votes were offered to him but he passed. He says he believes he was offered a certain number of votes for $5,000. No one acted as though it was untoward. It was just business, he says.

"There was more than one person that wanted to do mail-in ballot 'programs' for my campaign," he says. "Basically the way the system would work is they would put out the applications and then go out and collect the ballots and supposedly guarantee that they were marked for you...This has been going on in South Dallas politics for longer than I've been in Dallas."

Those frustrated with the corrupt system say they hope the high-profile charges and grand jury investigation could finally produce enough pressure to force legislators to make some changes that will have a real effect. Mountin is one of those banking on some real progress into the joke that mail-in ballots have become in Southern Dallas and to a lesser extent in other parts of the state.

He has investigated vote-by-mail irregularities since January 2000. He believes he's making strides despite ambiguous law solely because his office employees "have been working their asses off," he says. So far, his efforts have won him criticism.

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