Before He Sipped the Tea, Rick Perry Had a Much Different Take on Voting

The old Rick Perry -- back before he discovered the Tea Party -- would have swept into Dallas on a white horse shootin' his Ruger and kickin' up dust to defend the embattled Medrano family, accused of faking a family member's voter residency in a justice of the peace election. In fact, I just wonder. Does the Tea Party even know about the old Perry?

The standing interpretation of the law on voter residency in Texas comes from a Texas secretary of state's opinion in 2004 that Governor Perry requested after a rogue district attorney in Waller County tried to ban students at predominantly black Prairie View A&M University from voting in local elections.

The secretary of state is the state's highest election official. Perry said in a letter to him: "I want to ensure that all Texas residents, including those students at Prairie View A&M University, have the opportunity to properly exercise their fundamental right to vote in elections."

That's what I'm talkin' about! Rick Perry, the liberal! Where'd he go?

The opinion that ensued from then Secretary of State Geoffrey S. Connor found that a person's legal residence for voting purposes is pretty much wherever that person says it is at that moment in time. The secretary of state, a Republican back before Republicans went brown-shirt, cited Texas law and a raft of federal cases to show that it's against the law to even question people much beyond what they put down on their voter registration application.

Officials cannot demand that a voter fill out a questionnaire. They cannot enact local rules about what it takes to be a local resident.

If you say you intend to reside in a certain place, and if you are physically present in that place when you say it, then you're a resident for the purposes of election law, the opinion said. Except that you can also do it by mail.

"In particular," the opinion states, "no Texas county voter registrar may require an affidavit or questionnaire in addition to the information required on the application for a voter registration certificate. A person who has reached the age of majority is presumed able to make a factual statement about his or her voting residence. Moreover, the student is presumed to be in the best position to make such factual statements about the residence of the student. In addition, Texas law does not require a statement of durational future residence. These principles apply equally to college students as well as other voters, and no more can be required of them in order for them to register and vote in the state of Texas."

So what the hell? A person's residence for voting purposes is sort of like a person's so-called racial identity. It's what you say it is. And anyway, who cares?

As former Dallas County Elections director Bruce Sherbet pointed out to me last week, the big one, the big no-no according to the law, is voting more than once in an election. That's a major problem. Maybe you should go to jail for that one. Otherwise, you are free to cast your ballot.

The Medranos, a local Chicano clan with a history of political involvement, were described in The Dallas Morning News Sunday as a "dynasty." I never hear The News calling rich white people "dynasties," like the Hunts or, for that matter, the Decherd-Moroney-Dealeys who own the newspaper. I think in this case "dynasty" means Mexicans who own rent houses.

In the Medrano matter, a headline-hunting Republican Texas attorney general has gone to a grand jury in an ultra-conservative majority-white Republican enclave community outside Dallas and won indictments against seven Medranos. The charges are based mainly on the word of one young adult family member.

Apparently Veronica Medrano, age 19 at the time of the events in question, told a Rockwall County grand jury that her uncle Carlos Medrano forced her to register at a fake address in order to vote for him in his narrow election victory over incumbent Justice of the Peace Luis Sepulveda in a 2010 Democratic primary election.

If this business ever gets to court, there may be a lot of very sad testimony about the relationship of young Veronica with the rest of the family, but mainly there will be some spirited back and forth over whether she even knows what she intended when she filled out her voter registration application.

The Morning News story Sunday talked about a Medrano election in the late 1980s. The story says of that election: "The News examined a 1987 school board runoff pitting Robert Medrano against Rene Castilla and found evidence that one in four votes were fraudulent in a single precinct within the Medrano power base."

Yeah, yeah. Been there, done that. Guess what. Newspapers do not convict people of crimes. Courts convict. And no court convicted anybody of anything in the 1987 deal. Want to know why? I know why, because I have made the same mistake myself in the past.

Newspaper reporters and newspaper editors can see stuff going on in elections that looks bad to them. Just doesn't look right. Can't be right. But we're often wrong. According to the law it all turns out to be OK.

It's OK because politicians like Perry, back before he decided to go for the tri-cornered hat vote, generally want people to vote. In a democracy, it's a given that the more people who vote, the better, and the best way to get them to vote is to let them vote wherever the hell they want to vote in elections that they personally care about.

That district attorney down in white Waller County west of Houston was trying to keep a bunch of black kids from voting. Pre-Tea Perry jumped on him, saying we should let those kids vote if they want to. In fact, kids voting? We should give them all chocolates and a gold star.

All of that has changed with the Tea Party "Right the Vote" initiatives. I attended a Right the Vote "boot camp" in the suburbs earlier this year: The basic message was that Tea Partiers need to learn the technicalities of voting law so they can keep Mexican-Americans and black people away from the polls.

But the overwhelming thrust of law and court opinion in this country has always been that the right to vote is not a technicality. The law assumes a whole lot of leeway. Call it slop if you want to. In America we have always believed it's better for voting law to be sloppy than for people not to vote because voting law is technically strict. The point is to get people to vote, not keep them from voting.

That's where this Medrano story will go eventually. It's going to become a much bigger story about get-out-the-vote initiatives versus Tea Party white-the-vote campaigns -- American political history and tradition versus Tea Party radicalism. Or, as we might be tempted to put it, the old Rick Perry versus this new guy.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze