Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings wants to snuff out attempted voter fraud in Dallas before it starts during this Dallas City Council election season. Friday, Dallas state Representative Eric Johnson joined Rawlings to call attention to Dallas County's efforts to investigate media reports of dozens of voters receiving mail-in ballots they never requested ahead of the May 6 council election.
"We don't know exactly what it is, but we just want to make sure there is an investigation going on [at Dallas County] and the DA's office is investigating, as well," Rawlings said. "Nothing is more important than holding elections with integrity and transparency."
Earlier this month, several senior citizens in West Dallas and Oak Cliff complained to WFAA-TV that they'd received mail-in ballots without having asked for one. In Texas, mail-in ballots are only available to people over 65, those with disabilities and those who will be out of the county in which they're registered to vote for the full duration of the election, including early voting.
Johnson, who said he was raised by his grandparents, says the the manipulation of older people's votes is personal for him. “It’s vote stealing,” Johnson said Friday. “I don't care if it's for a candidate that I want to win or a candidate I don't want to win.”
All mail-in ballots will be investigated, Rawlings said. Additionally, if a person shows up at a polling place to vote and records show they've already cast a mail-in ballot, they won't be turned away. Instead, Rawlings said, they'll be allowed to cast a provisional ballots. Voters who cast both a mail-in ballot and a provisional ballot will only have their choices from the provisional ballot recorded.
The news here isn't so much that mail-in ballot high jinks are happening, it's that Rawlings is calling them out in public. As the Dallas Observer has documented for well over a decade, Dallas' council races, especially in the city's low-turnout districts like West Dallas' District 6, can come down to which candidate better executes its absentee ballot strategy. (In 2015, incumbent Monica Alonzo, whose campaign didn't return a request to comment for this story, won her District 6 seat despite receiving only 958 votes.)
"The elections that this really affects, these absentee irregularities that we're dealing with, affect city elections, school district elections, primary elections, community college district elections, low-turnout elections," former Dallas County Elections Administrator Bruce Sherbet told the Observer in an interview about absentee ballot manipulation in 2002. "Low turnout, I would say, is 10 percent or less. It depends on which jurisdiction. ...You could be talking 1,200 voters or 1,500 voters."
Sherbet could easily have been talking about this year's District 6 race, but he wasn't. Instead, the former administrator was describing the 2001 District 6 election between Ed Oakley and Dwaine Caraway, who happens running to unseat incumbent Carolyn Arnold in District 4 this year.
In that race, as Jim Schutze recounted after election day, seniors in one West Dallas neighborhood recalled giving up their mail-in ballots.
"Patterns emerge after a while. Caraway's ballot collection agents didn't go after Hispanics," Schutze wrote. "They didn't try very hard with the elderly black people who are still sharp. But almost every elderly black voter I visited who showed any sign of fuzziness or confusion had a story to tell about giving up a ballot. Most of them told me about 'the Spanish man and the tall black man with a gray beard.' There were other teams of vote collectors as well."
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Pat Spears, a field coordinator for Caraway's 2001 campaign denied that her campaign had anyone going around messing with senior citizens about their ballots. "Campaigns don't have people who go around and do that," Spears told Schutze, who heard many stories contradicting Spears' statement:
"Mrs. [Mary] Smith showed me the bottom half of an official Dallas County Elections Department application for an absentee ballot, torn off at the perforated line, with the names and phone numbers of Spears and [Mark] Baker written in ball-point pen near the printed title, "Dallas County Elections Department." Mrs. Smith said Spears had instructed her to call her the moment she received her absentee ballot in the mail. I asked Mrs. Smith who Spears worked for.
"The county," she said immediately. "That's what she told me."
As Schutze tells it, Caraway's street team may have walked the fine line of Texas' election law 15 years ago. The state allows campaign workers to go to someone's house and urge them to vote for their candidate. It even allows them to mail-in absentee ballots for voters and assist with filling them out, as long as those doing the assisting sign off on the ballot as well. This year, Rawlings and Johnson want to make sure no one crosses that line.
"Senior citizens want to vote, and they want to vote the right way. We need their vote and protecting them is critical."