One thing is clear two weeks after the 2017 Dallas City Council election: Something went wrong with absentee voting in West Dallas. While rumor and innuendo have been plentiful, very little has emerged in the way of fact, especially since many key players in the drama have clammed up because of the ongoing investigation into the potential vote fraud.
In hopes of keeping this all straight, let's take a look at what we know and what we don't about the ongoing investigation into the District 6 election.
We know that approximately 700 mail-in ballots were impounded on election day.
This is what started the whole thing. On May 4, two days before the election, the Dallas County District Attorney's Office asked Carl Ginsberg, Dallas County's 193rd District Court judge, to hold 700 or so mail-in ballots. The common thread among the ballots, which would not be counted until Thursday of the following week, was Jose Rodriguez, who helped the voters receiving the contested ballots with their mail-ballot applications.
We know that Rodriguez does not exist, at least not as Jose Rodriguez.
In its request to sequester the ballots, the district attorney's office said it believes Jose Rodriguez is a fictitious name.
We know that the county, despite the investigation into the ballots tied to Rodriguez, elected to count most of them anyway.
On Thursday, May 11, the Dallas County Elections office released its final totals for the City Council election. Between District 6 and District 2, where investigators also discovered several hundred ballots connected to Rodriguez, Dallas County added 629 votes to the various candidates involved.
We know that those ballots didn't swing any city of Dallas elections.
Adam Medrano won more than 91 percent of the vote in District 2, so that race is a moot point. District 6, while highly contested, wasn't affected by the sequestered ballots. Any way you slice the ballots in District 6, incumbent Monica Alonzo, mayor pro tem, and Dallas County Schools board member Omar Narvaez go to a runoff. If you only count ballots cast in person, Alonzo beats Narvaez by five points, winning 35 percent of the vote in a six-person field. If you count all undisputed ballots cast on Election Day, Alonzo beats Narvaez by a 39 to 27 margin.
If you count only the disputed ballots that ended up in the final totals, Alonzo wins by a nearly identical margin, 48 to 37. Even if every ballot that got tossed out — 98, according to The Dallas Morning News' Robert Wilonsky's account of a meeting of the Dallas County Election officials and members of the Dallas City Council — went for either Alonzo, Narvaez or any other candidate in the race, the outcome would've be the same.
We don't know what role Sidney Williams or Jose Barrientos played in the election.
On Wednesday, WFAA-TV (Channel 8) dropped a bombshell, reporting that a "whistleblower" told to the network that someone inside the Dallas County Elections office helped fraudsters in District 6 by alerting them when mail-in ballots were set to be delivered to certain ZIP codes. Williams, the whistleblower, provided WFAA with recordings he'd made of conversations with Barrientos, a longtime West and South Dallas political gadfly, detailing the scheme:
Williams: What do we do, chase the mailman, or how does that work?
Barrientos: Your homeboy that's at the elections office, he tells you when the f*****g ZIP codes are dropping. He'll tell you like 75221 fixing to hit. Today. They're going out.
Williams: He tells you that?
Barrientos: He's not supposed to but yeah. But then you've got to drop a hundred or two or three. Whatever it is. He can't do it for free.
Later in the recordings, Barrientos tells Williams that "Monica is going down," referring to Alonzo. At one point on the tapes, Williams tells Barrientos his signature looks like Rodriguez's, to which Barrientos responds, "Maybe. Maybe not. I'll never tell."
In a brief phone call with the Observer on Saturday, Barrientos said his conversation with Williams was taken out of context. He and Williams discussed how they would get their hands on a pile of mail-in ballots if they wanted to, he said.
"We were just talking shit," Barrientos said. He told the Observer he has no affiliation with either campaign and didn't steal ballots for anyone.
A couple of things are worth noting here. First, the scheme outlined by Williams with regard to being tipped off about the day absentee ballots are delivered sounds exactly like one described to the Observer by Alonzo campaign representative Jose Plata last week as a scheme used by the Narvaez campaign to bully seniors out of their ballots.
Second, WFAA paid Williams for the tapes. Williams told the DMN that the station paid him $2,500 for the tapes. WFAA confirmed that it paid a licensing fee to report on the tapes exclusively but said the fee was far less than $2,500.
We know that it is increasingly unlikely that someone committed fraud on behalf of a specific candidate.
If Barrientos was trying to steal the election for Narvaez, he did a crappy job of carrying out his plan. Most of the Rodriguez ballots that ended up getting counted, 189 of 387, went to Alonzo, with 146 going to Narvaez and 52 going to other candidates. Because absentee ballots don't get counted unless they are received by 7 p.m. on Election Day — poll closing time — Barrientos could not have known how many ballots Narvaez needed to win outright or, giving him credit for maximum cunning, the number of ballots he should have shifted Narvaez's way to make sure he made a runoff with Alonzo.
Likewise, if Barrientos was some sort of double agent for the Alonzo campaign, surely he would've kept her out of a dangerous runoff election. The numbers simply don't support that fraud was being committed on behalf of any specific candidate.
What seems more likely is the scenario suggested to the Observer by Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston last week. Kingston guessed that Rodriguez, whoever he is, might have independently harvested the ballots in hopes of selling them to either campaign.
If that's what happened, it's hard to figure out why Rodriguez would've voted the ballots, assuming neither campaign bought them, as the vote split suggests. Perhaps he sold half to each campaign, but again, that's something we don't know. Both campaigns have accused their opponents of cheating while vehemently denying that they committed any shenanigans.
We know that this will keep happening unless the state of Texas tightens controls on absentee voting.
While in-person voter fraud is vanishingly rare, mail-in ballots are there for the picking, especially in Dallas' extremely low-turnout municipal elections. Counting the accepted Rodriguez ballots, fewer than 2,400 people voted in the District 6 council race, despite competitive candidates who poured money into the election. When turnout is far less than 10 percent, every vote is amplified, so the temptation of steering seniors toward a given candidate or simply into handing over their ballots is great.
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West Dallas, especially, has been a target for this type of fraud over the years. Fifteen years ago, Dwaine Caraway, now re-elected to the council from District 4, allegedly sent workers to pressure senior citizens for ballots. In the 1990 Democratic Texas House primary, a Dallas County District Attorney's Office investigation found that the Rev. Kenneth Wayne Hogg, a supporter of Domingo Garcia, tricked six senior citizens into turning over their blank absentee ballots.
Hogg eventually pleaded guilty to felony vote fraud in October 1990, but such convictions are rare. In 2003, Steve Wolens, who beat Garcia in that 1990 primary, helped pass a law protecting voters from those who would poach their mail-in ballots, but the penalties for doing things like improperly requesting or marking a mail-in ballot are all misdemeanors.
We don't know what will happen in the runoff.
The Dallas County Elections Board announced Friday afternoon that it will continue to scrutinize all applications for mail-in ballots as well as mail-in ballots themselves through the runoff election.