By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The sleaze artists not only are out there hard at work preparing to steal and bamboozle votes from old people in the May 3 Dallas election: They may even be working overtime. They want to get in their last good harvest before the vote-fraud reform bill shuts them down.
State Representative Steve Wolens, Mayor Laura Miller's husband, has a bill in the House this year aimed at cleaning up vote fraud in Texas, especially in Dallas where it has become a cottage industry. Let me give you an example of why that might be a good idea:
Today we're driving, you and I, through a very poor neighborhood in West Dallas, way out Canada Drive behind the Trinity River levee. We are going to visit with a dozen or so individual voters scattered through this area who all seem to have identical handwriting. And a very beautiful hand it is--a kind of ornate script with broad flourishes that you just don't see a lot of these days.
Let me explain a little what we're going after: On my dashboard is a sheaf of photocopies of applications for absentee ballots by mail for the May 3 election. These are public records. Anyone can get them from the Dallas County Elections Department.
Normally a voter sends one of these applications in; the elections department mails back an absentee ballot package. The professional vote harvesters, however, mail these in under the names of voters without the voter's knowledge; that way they know from the legally required timing of the process exactly when the mailman will deliver the ballot. Then they follow the mailman.
They may steal the ballot in order to vote it themselves fraudulently. They may sell it to a dirty campaign. Or they may even knock on the voter's door and bamboozle the voter to vote in favor of the dirty campaign that's paying them.
First stop, the home of Raybon Hunter on Canada Drive. He's up in years but comes to the door looking fairly hale and hearty. I show him the signature, and he says right away it's not his, and he doesn't vote absentee.
"No, I'm going to go ahead and vote [in person]," he tells me. "I drive."
Next stop, the home of Milas Franklin Jr. and his wife, Lorine. The pretty young Latino housewife who answers the door tells me she's never heard of them.
Next stop, home of Norman Jones. He says: "That's nothing like my signature at all."
Let's stop by and chat with the Prices, Lee and Louise, who have identical Olde-Englishy handwriting on their mail-in ballot applications. Mrs. Price tells me at the door that she does vote absentee, but she says the signature on the application I am showing her is not her own: "No, no, my papers are still in here," she says. "I haven't filled them out yet. I do it myself."
Hazel Randolph is not at home. I leave my card, and Mrs. Randolph calls me later to assure me that she has not applied for a mail-in ballot.
Annie Lee Taylor is at home and on the sofa but indisposed. Her husband assures me the signature on the document I show him is not his wife's. "No."
Christine Kelly tells me she has already received a mail-in ballot in the mail, a surprise since she had not applied for one.
The home of Rosa Jones, another applicant with the same ornate handwriting, appears to be unoccupied and is padlocked from the outside.
Louise Ball is seated on her stoop, a frail wizened little lady in a red wig. I show her the document and ask if it's her signature. Doesn't take two winks. "No. That's not mine."
OK. This is getting old, right? All of the calligraphy-looking signatures are fake. You and I, we may not be Sherlock Holmes, but this is not Holmes' case of the forged letter of Sir Percy Derwent, chief inspector of Cornwall County. In fact, let me ask you something: Did the forger in the case of the identically faked mail-in ballot applications of Dallas County never think of varying the signatures? We are forced to deduce, Watson, that this culprit is either extremely arrogant, or, perhaps more likely, running a quart low.
All of my suspect ballots came in as part of the same shipment of 265 ballot applications delivered to county election headquarters a week ago by UPS. The legally required name on the paperwork of the person making the shipment was Mark Baker, a political activist who lives in this neighborhood and who has been active in mail-in ballot campaigns in the past. We visit Baker's home. His mother, a nice lady, tells us he is "out," and she and I have a little chat about what I'm up to. I leave a card.
Now we try to reach Clair Conly Woertendyke, a candidate for the District 3 city council seat. I am trying to phone him because it has been asserted to me in the course of the day that the bundle of 265 ballot applications bearing Baker's name actually was shipped in by Woertendyke. When I call the phone number given on Woertendyke's financial disclosure statement at City Hall, I get a Latino gentleman who has never heard of him. By the way, I am concerned that this same darned culprit may have filed a fake financial disclosure form for Woertendyke, because Woertendyke's signature on the form seems quite similar to my untrained eye to the bad signatures on the mail-in ballot applications.
I find Woertendyke, a perennial candidate, activist and yard-sign merchant, at his home in Oak Cliff. He explains the problem with the phone number: He simply wrote it down wrong at City Hall.
We chat about many things. I actually have known Woertendyke for more than 15 years. I first ran across him when he lived in my area in East Dallas and was running against Lee Simpson for the council. He says he is now a loyal Oak Cliffite.
"We've been here for two years now. We lost my ex-brother-in-law's mom. She got rid of the house. Her daughters gave it up. Actually, this is my son's house. It's not even my house. It will be my son's house. He made a deal with my brother-in-law."
At times in our conversation, Woertendyke seems to be telling me that he and Baker worked the area in question together, canvassing voters to see who wanted to apply for a mail-in ballot. "We went out at the same time, many many times," he says.
At other times, he paints Baker as more of a lone wolf, especially in Precinct 3016, the area where I have found all the fake signatures. "Precinct 3016 is the ones he did. I didn't. I only did a few. Maybe 10 or 15 I got out of that one precinct."
That would be enough to cover me. I do point out, just for grins, the uncanny similarity between the culprit's handwriting and Woertendyke's, but he dismisses that suggestion emphatically: "I don't see any damned resemblance. None at all."
All right. Whatever. I ask him why there are so many fake signatures, no matter who did the forging, on the ballot applications he shipped in. He seems to point ever so gingerly in the direction of Baker.
"Something fishy happened during the middle of this," he says, "and he stopped talking to me." Woertendyke says he was suspicious of the signatures on some of the ballot applications Baker brought him. "He brought me a bunch of them. And I looked at them myself, and I gotta admit, I wasn't sure. But I wasn't going to accuse anybody of anything. That's not my job."
He explains to me that his use of Baker's name as the shipper of the ballot applications was perfectly proper, even though he himself was the shipper, because, "I had his permission to use his name on the package."
Got it. I ask why, if this was Woertendyke's shipment of ballot applications, did he want to put Baker's name on it?
"It was just from the standpoint, if, if anybody questioned anything, I didn't want to have my name on it."
Got that, too. And yet sadly, here we are, a bunch of bad signatures and one bad phone number later, with questions.
Woertendyke tells me there is real consternation among the people he knows in the field of mail-in ballotology, a fear that their days may be numbered. "Wolens has got this law coming up," he says, "and it's going to practically make everything a felony or a misdemeanor. It's crazy."
The shadows are growing long, and it is time to take leave of Château Woertendyke. But let's take a final swing through West Dallas to visit again with Baker's mom, who seemed like such a nice lady. We urge her to have her son call. She says she will, and about the time I get back to my desk, I have a call from Mark Baker.
Baker concedes that he allowed Woertendyke to use his name on the bundle of ballot applications. He suggests he knows little more about the matter than that. He asks, "Mr. Jim, can I talk to Mr. Woertendyke first?"
Sure. It's a free country, and we all need to have our stories straight. I don't hear from him again.
Both Woertendyke and Baker, by the way, have political signs in their yards urging people to vote yes on the full bond package that will be on the ballot May 3. Baker has a couple. Both say they are not on the bond campaign's staff and are not being paid. They are supporting the bond program out of a sense of civic duty.
Isn't civic duty grand? Now, if you will excuse me, I am going to pop home and take a long bath with a bar of lye soap.