County Elections Department Was Born in Sin and Will Never Be Right. Ditch It.

Vote fraud by people outside the county elections department tends to depend on people inside.
Vote fraud by people outside the county elections department tends to depend on people inside.
Kobzev Dmitry via Shutterstock
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Dallas City Council member Jennifer Gates has a great idea. Really. She’s right. The city should strongly consider pulling its elections out from under the aegis of the county elections department and run them itself.

The county elections department as constituted was born in sin. Its structure is the result of a plot by Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and the Dallas County Democratic Party to oust the former administrator because he was too honest.

The purpose of the Dallas County Elections Department is vote fraud. It is set up for vote fraud. The things the current head says in her defense are transparently laughable, unwitting confessions.

Gates is right and courageous to say so. The county is never going to clean it up. Don't believe me? I have a test for them. Tell you in a minute. Meanwhile, the only way to get a clean election around here will be to get elections out from under the county elections department.

Last week, when the Dallas City Council accepted the official May 6 joint election tally from the Dallas County Elections Department, it did so with about the enthusiasm you’d expect if the fire department had just rescued their puppy from a toilet — a mixture of relief and disgust.

In the weeks leading up to Election Day, voters reported all kinds of sketchy behavior strongly suggesting vote fraud and a great need for the elections people to go over the cast ballots after the election with a fine-toothed comb before counting them as legitimate.

After the election, while the council was waiting for that mess to get straightened out, WFAA-TV (Channel 8) broadcast a bizarre series of stories about vote fraud based on unexplained sources who seemed to float into the shot disembodied like the ghosts of A Christmas Carol. The main source alleged some kind of inchoate bad stuff about voting, but it was never clear what.

There was a reason for that. Thank you, Naomi Martin of The Dallas Morning News, for finally explaining in an article Friday that the Channel 8 stories were an exercise in both vote fraud and journalism fraud. The TV station had paid an informant, a person of interest in a district attorney investigation, giving him something north of $1,000 to tape his confederates.

Channel 8 presented its source without explaining it had paid him or that the DA thought he might be part of the fraud. A reporter read from transcripts of tapes that were not played, alleging some kind of hanky-panky that was never quite explained. If I were Gates sitting on the council, I would think the whole thing — the way the election was run, the way Channel 8 reported it — was such a mess that the only sane thing was to walk away.

Listen. A few telltale phrases of truth escaped serendipitously from the nonsense. In particular, the Channel 8 trusted source/person of interest talked about paying off somebody inside the elections department to tell him when a raft of absentee ballots were being mailed out. That one thing — the timing of the mail-outs — has always been the key to the Dallas County absentee ballot scam, which has been around for at least 30 years.

Here is how it works. A vote scammer gets his hands on the county’s list of registered voters. He sends in applications for dozens of absentee ballots, forging the applicants’ names, usually from a string of adjacent or near-adjacent street addresses.

The county elections department sends out the ballots within a rough timeframe, depending on when the apps came in. First come, first served, more or less. Therefore, the scammer's absentee ballots all go out the same day. If the scammer can be sure when that day is, he or she knows from experience when the mailman will walk down the street stuffing ballots into mailboxes — and follows.

What happens after that varies. The scammer may snatch the ballots out of the mailboxes and vote the ballots himself. If he knows the neighborhood and the people — often the case — he may knock on doors and make sure the voters step out onto their porches and vote the right way in front of him. I also have heard of cases in which the scammer knocks, lets the people vote the way they want to vote, sees who they voted for, takes the ballots and goes to the opponent, offering to dump the ballots into the Trinity River. Not for free.

The Dallas Observer reported on a lot of this in 2002. A principle source for us at the time was our own former colleague, then Mayor Laura Miller. Her husband, then state Rep. Steve Wolens, got legislation passed in 2003 that tried to tighten the screws on some of this behavior. But there has always been a question about lingering corruption of the process.

If there is corruption, it depends entirely on information from within the elections department. The system of corruption depends on timing, and the information about timing comes from within the department.

I laughed bitterly to myself when I saw the head of the department, Toni Pippins-Poole, quoted last week, I guess giving what she thought was her defense: She told Council Member Gates, “It's not the integrity of the county or the department. You're talking about people that are outside of the department that are doing this.”

Exactly. With necessary help from inside. That’s how it has always worked. The people inside just talk, which probably is not against the law. The people outside walk.

Pippins-Poole knows that. If she was excited about putting an end to vote fraud, she wouldn’t be distancing herself. She’d be tearing through her department with a blowtorch, burning out anybody she couldn’t trust to keep his or her damn mouth shut.

And that brings us to how and why she got her job. Six years ago, Price forced out the former head of the elections department, Bruce Sherbet, after Sherbet, who was famous for being a straight arrow, refused to intervene in an election in a way Sherbet believed was improper. Sherbet is now the elections administrator in Collin County south of Dallas and is a nationally known elections consultant.

The Dallas County Democratic Party endorsed and supported Price's choice of a successor. One of the persons of interest in the current situation, by the way, had an official position within the party until he appeared on Channel 8, after which his name was unceremoniously erased from party records.

So here's my test for Dallas County. I'm not sure how it would work, because coming back to Dallas is probably the last thing Sherbet wants to do. But just as a test, how about we ask Price and the Democratic Party if they would consider bringing back Sherbet? At least ask him. Or someone of his recommendation.

Yeah, I can tell you the answer to that one. They would consider giving up the deal they have now like Jesse James would have considered giving up his pistol.

County Commissioner John Wiley Price and the Dallas County Democratic Party wanted to get rid of former elections administrator Bruce Sherbet because he was too straight-arrow.
County Commissioner John Wiley Price and the Dallas County Democratic Party wanted to get rid of former elections administrator Bruce Sherbet because he was too straight-arrow.
Sam Merten

Vote fraud and its twin sister, vote suppression, have deep roots in Dallas County. When I got here in the late 1970s, Republicans were putting up posters at the polls that read like threats from the Ku Klux Klan. Meanwhile, I heard stories from people I knew to be vote harvesters of gatherings in South Dallas that sounded sort of like big picnics beneath shade trees in which crews of high school students were paid to mark blank ballots.

And you know what? In a weird way, it all seemed sort of fair because it was all so starkly racial at the time. White people didn’t want nonwhite people to get elected. Nonwhite people intended to get elected by hook or by crook.

It would be pretty naive to suggest that those days are behind us in Texas. A federal district judge in the Southern District of Texas just ruled that the Texas voter ID law is the latest iteration of those KKK-like posters, designed to keep black people and Hispanics away from the polls. In the land of Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who would dare argue that Republicans are clean on voting issues?

But how does it help for Democrats to be dirty? The kind of trash behavior still going on in Dallas County is the best friend the vote suppressors have. It is their vindication.

The way for the city of Dallas to pull itself out of the trench warfare over vote fraud is to do exactly what Gates suggests: get our elections out from under the county. Do them ourselves.

OK, gotta go. I’m headed downtown to Channel 8. Got a hot scoop about a gigantic pothole in my alley, big enough for five people to live in. OK, four. But it should be worth at least enough to get the tailgate on my pickup fixed.

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