Fixing the Fixers

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

"We've been kind of shaking the tree so to speak, and it's kind of upset some people," he says. "I think the indictment is just one more step in making it very clear that we take this seriously and we will investigate as much as we possibly can and pursue as much information as we possibly can to try to get to the bottom of the issue."

Mountin has been blasted as a racist for his investigation, he says, because it appears to some that he is trying to silence the votes of minorities by limiting the assistance they are allowed in casting a vote from home. Not true, he says. Those who might vote by mail would never even notice the simple changes in the mail-in voting procedures he and others suggest the Legislature tackle, he says.

"We've received a tremendous amount of criticism because we had the audacity to get involved in this," he says. "Adelfa Callejo [chairwoman of the Coalition of Hispanic Organizations] called a press conference after we sent out letters to people that were involved in this requesting the Justice Department investigate my office and accused me of suppressing minority votes. She as much as called me a racist...No one's put a stop to what we're doing, so that ought to tell you something about whether or not they thought it was unlawful."

The only thing that would change if the suggestions become law, he says, is that the mail-in voters and the politicians and their operatives would be kept apart, just as they are at the polls where all kinds of legal measures erect a clearly defined barrier between the two. Sherbet says the best legal fix would involve deputizing those collecting ballots so that voting assistants would be accountable for their actions.

"You not only can track who's out there, you not only can identify the ballots that they've helped voters with in the voting process, but you can also educate, and folks out there doing this won't have the ability to say I didn't know I was doing something wrong," he says. "To me, a deputy early voting assistant would have to be trained. You'd get material saying what you can and can't do. That's been a big problem. We don't know who's out there, anything."

During two previous legislative sessions, proposed changes failed not because of opposition but because changes ended up getting attached to a much larger, comprehensive elections bill that failed. Sherbet says he is hopeful the Legislature, which convenes in January 2003, finally sees the issue through this time.

Dallas County Judge Lee Jackson says he has worked with elections officials and has educated politicians to try to eradicate the mail-in ballot problem.

"After the notice that we'd given to the city and both political parties and then to all the candidates, it's disappointing to still find it happening in 2002, but I hope this will spur legislative action," he says. "It may be that all the education in the world that we do locally won't be enough because strict enforcement of loose laws may not be enough to clean up this practice."

Hodge, who is well aware of the practice--and who employs Pitre--is on the nine-member House Committee on Elections that would usher in changes. She declined to talk to the Observerabout the issue.

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