Considering what happened in Dallas elections last year, one might've assumed something drastic was about to happen after seeing a "Request to Implement Policy Related to Mail Ballot Applications" on the County Commissioners Court agenda this week. Wrong.
Last spring, a West Dallas City Council race was thrown into chaos after authorities discovered that a single name, "Jose Rodriguez," had been signed to hundreds of mail-in ballot applications. County officials impounded several hundred ballots — most of which were eventually counted — and sheriff's deputies arrested Miguel Hernandez, 27, for illegal voting in July. Over the summer, the Texas Legislature responded with a bill strengthening penalties for those committing voter fraud via absentee ballot harvesting, making it a felony to provide false information on a mail-in ballot application or to cause someone else to do so.
In stepped the county to take a swing at the problem. Under a new policy passed by the commissioners Tuesday, individuals picking up mail-in ballot applications will now be limited to five per person. Each candidate who has officially filed campaign paperwork can pick up 200 mail-in applications. Previously, there was no limit on applications available to anyone.
Everyone picking up applications will have to sign a log verifying that they've received them to make sure no one can double dip. Additionally, signs will be posted in the Dallas County elections office warning of the new penalties for mail-in ballot abuse. People picking up applications will also get information about the new criminal offenses.
It sounds like a pretty tough counter to the shady "ballot brokers" who, in the past, have "assisted" elderly voters with their ballots and applications, making sure the ballots got filled in "correctly" and put in the mail. (The quotation marks are our subtle way of saying "fraud.") Unfortunately, the new limits have what one might call an exception, if one is feeling charitable, or a ginormous freaking loophole, if one doesn't trust the county's many mail-in vote wranglers. Candidates, campaigns and anyone with access to the internet and a printer can still print applications out from the county's website, as County Judge Clay Jenkins found out when he asked Dallas County Elections Administrator Toni Pippins-Poole about the new policy Tuesday.
"Yeah, you can still print them out; they're on our website," Pippins-Poole said.
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In its request to the commissioner's court to sign off on the limits, the Dallas County Elections Department highlights the new law and the need for better controls on who gets the applications, but it also reveals another reason for the department's decision to restrict the applications: They cost too much to print.
"Due to significant reduction in DCED’s printing budget, DCED cannot provide an unrestricted number of copies to the public," the department's request says.
So at the very least, ballot wranglers will have to front the cost of their own printer ink, which, to be fair, is no small thing.
The next hearing in Hernandez's illegal voting case is set for Jan. 31.