By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
This comes halfway close to being a decent score for Poss. Miller and her husband have been leading the fight for statewide reform of the absentee-voting laws in Texas, putting them directly at odds with Nealy and Nealy associates like state Representative Terri Hodge, who has earned big fees in the past for helping candidates harvest the absentee vote. Even guilt by second-degree association might work here.
But three points: One, the bond campaign, which admits it is using Nealy, is separate from the Miller campaign. Miller isn't even supporting the full bond campaign. Second, the Allyn company told me through a spokesperson that it has no dealings with Nealy and insisted on a complete contractual firewall between itself and Nealy in the bond effort. Third, Nealy says she's a respected national and international political consultant, and anyway she isn't fielding an absentee-vote effort.
Nealy emerged as a serious factor in local politics in 1997 when she helped Ross Perot Jr. and Tom Hicks get minority votes for tax subsidies for their new sports arena, American Airlines Center--a neat end-run around the North Dallas middle class that opposed the subsidies. Her presence in the bond campaign is evidence the backers may be playing a similar strategy. But she told me she will not carry out any organized effort to harvest mail-in votes for the bond campaign. I asked bond co-chair Demetris Sampson if the bond campaign would carry out an organized mail-in vote effort of any kind, and she said, "The answer is no."
But somebody's doing it. County Elections administrator Bruce Sherbet told me last week that dozens of well-known early-vote operatives already are coming in to his office to pick up boxes of hundreds of absentee-voting applications for the May 3 election.
The first day the county could legally accept an application to vote by mail in the May election was March 3. I have already spoken with one elderly resident who told me he had been visited by a classic "vote broker"--evidence that the vote harvesters are already at work.
Pablo Barrientos, speaking through an interpreter at his home in West Dallas, told me through the screened door one night last week that a man named Tony Hernandez had come to his house to help him vote for mayor.
Barrientos must have been confused. He could not have voted, since ballots had not been mailed out. Whoever came to his house must have had him sign his name on an application to receive an absentee ballot by mail.
He was insistent that the man who came to his door was Hernandez, whom he has known for many years and who he said comes to help him vote in every election, sometimes with his wife. I know the names of Tony and Gilda Hernandez well. They are veteran operatives in the early vote trade in Dallas and have worked in many campaigns.
"Mr. Hernandez came and picked up my vote," Barrientos told me. "He picked it up about a week ago."
I asked him who Mr. Hernandez said he worked for.
"La ciudad. The city of Dallas."
No city of Dallas employee would come in an official capacity to assist in the absentee-vote process. If someone made that claim to Barrientos, he was lying.
Barrientos told me he had known Tony Hernandez many years. "Long time, long time." He said Hernandez has come to the house with his wife, Gilda, in the past. "She has come."
I asked Barrientos if he believed he had voted for someone when he signed the document his visitor presented. "Yes. Si." But what he actually signed must have been an application.
The way the game works is this: The vote broker persuades an absentee voter to sign an application to vote at home. Then the vote broker turns the "app" in to the election department. By turning it in himself, the broker can predict the precise legal timetable by which the absentee ballot must be mailed to "his" voter, and he knows on what day the postal service will deliver it.
Some vote brokers show up and give technically legal assistance to the voter, within the letter of the law. Some of them illegally push the voter to vote for a certain candidate and then mail the ballot for him or hold it for barter later. Some brokers just snatch the ballots out of mailboxes and vote or hold them as their purposes suit.
I asked Barrientos if his visitor had urged him to vote for a certain candidate. He nodded yes.
"Vote for Signora Maria. Maria, I don't know. Maria? The big? Big lady. Big lady."
That would be Poss.