License to Scam

Is anything actually against the law in Texas elections?

The real joke about the vote-fraud law in Texas is the vote-fraud law in Texas. Let me tell you a little story I happen to know about:

A candidate in a recent Dallas election lost the race by a very tight margin after deliberately steering clear of any possible hanky-panky with absentee voters. After losing, the candidate called in advisers and told them they would never make that mistake again.

Next time, hanky-panky city.

Recently I went to the law offices of Ted Lyon to meet with accused vote-fraud artist Felicia Pitre, a legislative aide to southern Dallas state Representative Terri Hodge. Pitre was indicted on a felony charge of tampering with a government document in a school board race a year ago. A few weeks before Pitre and I met, the most serious charges against her were dismissed by state District Judge Gerry Meier. She still faces a misdemeanor charge of illegal "assistance" of a voter.

Pitre's purpose in meeting with me, I think, was to show me that far from being a shifty character she is a solid, middle-class single mom with a sincere interest in local politics. Her lawyer, Greg Gray, wanted me to see that the district attorney had misapplied the law in seeking the indictment in the first place. Ted Lyon, head of the law firm and a former state senator and Democratic stalwart, insisted that the entire vote-fraud effort of the Dallas County District Attorney's Office has been a Republican campaign to suppress minority Democratic votes.

The judge in Pitre's case agreed with Lyon and Gray that state law does not prohibit the specific things the district attorney accused her of doing--crimes of omission in filling out certain documents.

As for Lyon's claim that the district attorney's office is on a political mission to hold down the minority vote, District Attorney Bill Hill did leave himself open to that charge by breaking with past practice. A year ago the public integrity unit of his staff, without a complaint from any citizen, took it upon itself to go after political activists very aggressively on vote-fraud charges in the midst of a campaign season. People with prosecutorial experience have told me they were shocked to see Hill going after people during a campaign. Past practice was always to wait until the conclusion of an election and then act only on citizen complaints of vote fraud in order to avoid any appearance of trying to influence the outcome of an election.

Lyon says Hill went hard on Pitre because she is a minority Democrat from southern Dallas. "They took this case to a court where they prosecute murderers and rapists, and they were indicting this lady who went out and helped a senior citizen mark her ballot and vote." He suggested that if this had been a Park Cities white lady, the case would never have happened.

Hill says Lyon is wrong. "It's just not true. I've got people from both sides of the spectrum that are calling on us to prosecute voter fraud, and we're doing what we can with the tools we have to operate, including somewhat nebulous laws.

"I'm not picking on any one group. I just don't do that. Find me some white person in the Park Cities that you have some evidence against, and I'll try to prosecute them."

Hill points to the law itself as the biggest stumbling block. "I think everyone is frustrated with the fact that we do not have good enough legislation to sink our teeth into. And the problem, in addition to the law, according to my people, is that it's just very difficult to obtain the kind of evidence we need to prosecute these folks."

I can't disagree with any of that. The people involved are elderly and often are confused about what has transpired. I got scared myself a couple of times going door to door to interview people, because elderly voters thought I was from the government and tried to press ballots into my hands. I had a big picture in my mind of me going to the pokey, not Felicia Pitre.

As for the charge that Hill does what he does because of a political agenda, I have looked at a lot of election complaints, and I don't recall seeing any really juicy ones from Highland Park. It's simpler there, of course, because the culture doesn't include freedom of choice. But anybody can make a claim of bias about anybody. Someone could say I pick on people I disagree with politically and never write bad columns about my friends. (Absolutely untrue, by the way. I can prove in court that I have no friends. First evidence: I would show the judge how I have to get my wife to call my dog.)

Before Pitre was indicted, I met with Eric Mountin and Ben Stool, the assistant district attorneys of the public integrity unit, to hear their theory of vote fraud. Everything in vote-fraud cases turns ultimately on the issue of "assistance" of a voter. If you assist a voter legally, then you have to sign a document showing that you assisted. If you didn't assist anybody, then theoretically you don't have a problem.

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.

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 strengthed...by 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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