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.)
But the few who did remember clearly the person who picked up their ballots said it was Terri Hodge. We went over the point carefully. "You're sure you remember that Ms. Hodge picked it up in person?" I asked.
"Um-hmm. She did."
Let me recap a key point. The specific crime of which Hodge's aide is accused is tampering with a government record. Ann McGeehan, director of the elections division of the Office of Texas Secretary of State--speaking not in reference to anything about Hodge but only in general terms--said that the courier receipts themselves are government records.
"They are official election records," McGeehan said, "and in the primary there were federal offices on the ballot, so those are considered federal election records. So, yes, they are official election records."
Federal government records.
Hodge told me that the thing with the nonexistent address was a simple goof. She just wrote down the wrong address.
She conceded that she and other non-Virgin persons had picked up the ballots and taken them to the central pickup point. She very carefully and expertly parsed Chapter 86.006 of the Texas Election Code to show me that the language of the law says only that ballots "must be delivered by mail or by common or contract carrier."
Delivered. Doesn't say "picked up." She picks up. The Virgins deliver.
She said she used Virgin Couriers receipts because she doesn't have her own receipts. She parsed another piece of the law that says the secretary of state should provide receipt forms to people who don't have them. "Maybe I need the secretary of state to make me a receipt, since I don't routinely issue receipts."
I said I thought the law was supposed to prevent this very kind of operation from happening, and I also said I thought the Virgin Couriers receipts clearly gave a false impression that the Virgins had picked up the ballots themselves. This whole thing, with the Virgin receipts for pickups that the Virgins didn't make and the nonexistent address and so on looked to me like a mechanism for thwarting the clear intent of the law.
Her voice shaking with emotion and anger, Representative Hodge responded with a two-hour, nonstop telephone tirade: "You were never in my home when my grandmother talked to me about why it was so important for me to vote, and how the white lady that she worked for snuck money to her to pay her goddamn poll tax to vote, Mr. Schutze, to vote.
"Where were you? Where were you, Mr. Schutze? Right now in this country black people have to be certified every 10 years through the Voting Rights Act, sir, for the right to vote, and you people, you people who don't give a shit about us as people but to write mess about us, to make us all look like thieves, to make our old people look like they're stupid and can be maneuvered and manipulated, because we go to them, because we go to them...
"All you want to do is get people to read in your paper, 'Black people are doing this, the black elected officials are doing that. Oh, it's unethical. Oh, they're being paid.'"
Look, I'm a guilt-feeling bleeding-heart liberal. That stuff tears me up. I was just about down on the floor ready to scream uncle. But then she said something else.
"We want these people to vote," she said. "There is somebody sitting there every time, sir, to challenge everything we do, whether it's legitimate or whether it's not. And, you know what, if you keep sitting under the microscope, at some point you are bound to make a mistake."
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It caught my ear, because I thought she had her microscope tuned in pretty good when she was telling me how Chapter 86.006 had failed to contemplate the picking-up part of the delivery process.
Ms. McGeehan of the Secretary of State had told me: "The laws that restrict how ballots are returned were all compromises, like most legislation. This particular piece of legislation...as it started out was much more strict...All that was kind of peeled away as the legislative process went on."
Did I mention that the current law is a product of the House Elections Committee and that Terri Hodge sits on that committee and that Terri Hodge helped shape the legislation? She was one of the chief peelers.
My heart bleedeth less.