By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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.
"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 Observer about the issue.