License to Scam

Is anything actually against the law in Texas elections?

But, of course, that gets you into a question of just what constitutes assistance. Mountin and Stool had formulated their own new aggressive theory of "assistance," going far beyond past practice and even contradicting what campaigns had been told by officials in the past. Mountin and Stool told me they believed merely showing up at the door and offering to help deliver an elderly person's ballot falls within the legal definition of assistance.

But that doesn't mean juries will buy it. Say they got an indictment on these grounds and took somebody to trial. The defendant has helped deliver ballots for people for years and never had to sign anything, and now you're asking a jury to convict him or her of a felony because two assistant district attorneys changed the rules?

They said they didn't care. They were doing what was right.

Greg Gray, left, and Ted Lyon, the lawyers who got Felicia Pitre's felony charge tossed, say the district attorney is on a political vendetta.
Mark Graham
Greg Gray, left, and Ted Lyon, the lawyers who got Felicia Pitre's felony charge tossed, say the district attorney is on a political vendetta.

They didn't even get Pitre to trial. Judge Meier agreed with Pitre's lawyers, Lyon and Gray, that the public integrity unit's interpretation of the law on absentee voting was just wrong. The judge ruled Pitre didn't do anything wrong. It wasn't even worth a trial.

So who's the bad guy? Mountin and Stool for inventing their own definition of assistance? Well, hang on. The problem there is that our doofus state law, which turns on this whole issue of assistance, doesn't define assistance. The courts say the first thing lawyers are supposed to do when a word is not defined in the law is go to the dictionary.

I love dictionaries. I have a lot of them. My Webster's New World Dictionary defines assistance as "the act of assisting or the help given." So I guess Mr. Webster would hold that helping to mail the ballot is assistance, because it's, well, assistance.

My Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary follows pretty much the same course, although it offers a second meaning drawn from French roots: "the being or remaining near, presence or attendance." The Oxford offers as the first published example of this meaning an instance from 1520: "Ryghtful men are more nere assystence of aungels to them."

I'm not sure, but I think that means in England Felicia Pitre might be guilty the minute she steps out of her car at the voter's address. But she might be able to argue that she's an angel, which is pretty much what she told me at Ted Lyon's office, and I kind of believed her.

Mountin and Stool were trying to do their duty. Let me tell you who I think the bad guy is. I think the bad guy is the law. It doesn't work. Obviously, whoever wrote it didn't understand what goes on out in the real world.

Someone who does understand very intimately what goes on is state Representative Steve Wolens, a Democrat from Oak Cliff and husband of Mayor Laura Miller, who believes that he has been a target of opponents engaging in absentee-ballot fraud on many occasions in the past. Wolens is preparing legislation that will try to plug the holes in the law.

The portion of the proposed legislation he showed me would take care of several issues by requiring anybody and everybody who touches absentee ballots to create a record of their names and addresses with elections officials. Wolens' proposed law also would keep secret until after an election the names of people to whom absentee ballots have been mailed. That would partially resolve the issue of competing operatives getting lists of voters to whom ballots have been mailed and then descending on them like vultures to snatch ballots out of their hands before another candidate's people can get to the door.

Wolens said the legislation is a "work in progress now" and will eventually include a definition of assistance.

In all of this, the crucial bottom line is the sanctity of the vote. This might never have become a political issue had experienced operatives not learned how to peddle the bundled votes of elderly African-Americans to rich white developers seeking city tax subsidies. The lesson there is that if you allow people to manipulate and sell votes, those votes eventually will find their way to the highest bidder. That's basically why we decided to go with democracy instead of feudalism.

In the end and at bottom, this probably isn't a good-guys bad-guys situation. It's a case where a bad set of laws puts us all in a jackpot, and the Wolens initiative or something like it will offer the only way out.

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