By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
You'd think Terri Hodge would be in a conservative mode. Her administrative assistant, Felicia Pitre, goes on trial in June on a 10-year felony charge of messing with a blind lady's absentee ballot. Other players have retired entirely from the absentee vote game, given the heat surrounding it in recent months.
But state Representative Hodge must think she's made out of asbestos.
At 5:10 p.m. on March 12, at almost the last possible moment for counting absentee ballots on the day of the recent primary election, a commercial courier delivered a bundle of 47 ballots to the Dallas County Election Department on Stemmons Freeway, all shipped in by Representative Hodge of southern Dallas.
The current law on absentee ballots in Texas, passed in 1997, was an attempt by the Legislature to prohibit this very kind of "bundling" of ballots by campaigns. And here is what the Legislature was trying to prevent:
A vote broker goes out and gets old people and shut-ins to sign applications for ballots. Now the broker has a list of people who will have ballots sent to them in the mail. The broker also knows which ones are blind or senile.
The broker goes to the homes of the easy marks and tells them what to do. "Ms. O'Reilly, I want you to go feel around on top of your TV set and see if you can bring me a big fat envelope that you got in the mail yesterday or today. OK now, Ms. O'Reilly, I want you to open it up. And now I'm going to hand you a pencil and show you which dot to fill in. Good. And now, Ms. O'Reilly, you just give me that envelope, and I will see it gets where it needs to go."
I'm not saying Ms. Hodge did this. I'm saying this is what the legislative reformers in Austin were concerned about.
There are all sorts of reasons why brokers and campaigns hoard these ballots until the last minute. Some brokers actually carry the bundles of votes around to candidates and try to get money for them. Campaigns hang on to them until the last moment in order to pull a surprise on their opponents. It's vote-broker poker: Don't show your cards till somebody calls.
To stop brokers and campaigns from preying on shut-in voters, the new law says absentee ballots "must be delivered by mail or by common or contract carrier." That's so campaigns and brokers can't go get them and deliver them to the voting place. And to make even more sure, the new law says each and every ballot delivered by a courier must have its own courier receipt showing when and where the courier picked it up, so that a broker or campaign can't go get them all and hold on to them and then have the courier come pick up the whole bundle. In fact, the new law says ballots cannot be combined at all in bundles or packages. The law also says ballots cannot be picked up at a campaign office or at the office of a candidate in the election.
Hodge was a candidate for re-election in the March 12 primary. All 47 of the ballots she shipped in together on the last day were picked up by Virgin Couriers, a company that seems to show up in many of the campaigns where questions about possible vote fraud have been raised. I'm not saying they do anything bad themselves. They sound like a fun group, in fact. Their ad in the Dallas Voice says, "Wanna Be A Virgin again? Virgin couriers, a fun lesbian owned company is hiring full time couriers...Call 972-279-0101." I called that number and spoke to a few people, but they all said they couldn't speak to me.
The Virgin Couriers receipt for the 47-vote bundle, signed by Terri Hodge as shipper, gives 1409 N. Washington as the point of pickup--information required by state law. That address, however, does not exist.
I drove around and around the block looking. I even embarrassed myself by going into somebody's office and asking if their business, which looks like it has been there about 50 years, might have had a different address a few weeks ago. In a word, no.
Another problem: Each individual ballot in the bunch has its own Virgin Couriers receipt, as required by law, and each of those receipts shows each individual voter's home address as the original point of pickup. OK, now we have a Logic 101 problem here, right? The bundle of votes listed the nonexistent address on Washington. We can't have two different original pickup points for the same delivery.
But there is yet another problem. I interpret a Virgin Couriers receipt showing an individual voter's home as the pickup point for the ballot as meaning that Virgin Couriers went to that address and picked it up. I drove around and chatted with a bunch of those voters. Very few remembered at all who had picked up their ballots.
Some, in fact, did not remember voting. Several elderly citizens disappeared into darkened homes and reappeared offering me crumpled ballots from elections gone by or, in one case, what looked like a solicitation from Publishers Clearinghouse. They thought I was there to collect it. Nobody remembered seeing any Virgin people, although I admit this was not an easy question to frame under the circumstances. (I was earning my money that day.)