As officials in North Carolina investigate possible voter fraud in last month’s election, 33 people have already been convicted of the crime in Texas this year, more than the state’s combined total for the previous five years.
Eight others accused of voter fraud in the state are awaiting resolution of their cases, which typically involve violations by small-time vote harvesters paid to collect absentee ballots.
The violations were generally in local, nonpartisan elections – such as those for school boards, and primaries of both parties – and are not tied to the well-funded, high-profile Texas race in which Sen. Ted Cruz defeated Democratic rising star Rep. Beto O'Rourke in November.
And an ex-state lawmaker says Texas’s increase reflects not so much a rise in voter fraud as a more vigorous public effort to crack down on it.
“I took it on when I was elected county attorney in Bee County” in 1988, said former state Rep. Jose Aliseda, who is now district attorney in a three-county area in South Texas. Even back then, he said, voter fraud “had already been part of the political landscape there for a long time. “
History shows that voter fraud has been part of elections in Texas for decades. And money, intimidation, skulduggery and misrepresentation have plagued elections in virtually every state.
In recent years Democrats and major media outlets have dismissed claims of significant voter fraud, including those by President Trump. But the disputed midterm outcome last month in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District – centering on allegedly illegal ballot harvesting for the Republican candidate and apparent winner – has put the issue at center stage of American politics.
Also stoking debate is a law passed by California in 2016 that made ballot harvesting legal. Republicans believe it helped Democrats flip House seats in their traditional stronghold of Orange County during this year’s midterms.
Republican-dominated Texas, home to one of the most significant stolen elections in American history – Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1948 race for the Senate – may be ground zero for the issue because it has, perhaps more than any other state, worked to combat it.
The increase in convictions stems in part from legislation that took effect Dec. 1, 2017, with an enhanced definition of voter fraud and slightly increased penalties from misdemeanor to felony in certain cases, including offenses involving a voter aged 65 or older.
The attorney general’s office, which declined to comment for this article, has also invested more money in policing fraud, both for staff and administrative costs.
The basic element in most of the cases is the mail-in, or absentee, ballot. A voter who is either 65 or older, infirm, or otherwise unable to get to the polls on voting day can elect to vote by mail. Texas law allows for someone to assist such voters within limits. Close relatives can assist, and non-relatives must comply with rules on signing, handling, and mailing in the ballot.
Illegal vote harvesters often get to know the elderly and the sick in a community – people most likely to vote by mail. Under the guise of assistance, they advise on whom to vote for or take the ballot and cast the vote themselves.
In some cases, they intercept mail-in ballots, vote in accordance with whoever’s paying them, forging voters’ signatures. In other cases, they request, intercept, fill-in, and return absentee ballots in the names of unwitting voters.
The harvesters, who can work for a slate of candidates, are often called canvassers on campaign finance reports, where expenditures are noted. Other times the acronym “GOTV” is listed under purpose of payment, for “get out the vote.” Sometimes “labor” is the term used. The region-specific name for harvesters in Texas is "politiqueras."
The operatives can earn as much as $5,000 in an election season, mostly in hotly contested local races and primaries. And they can become the building blocks of local political organizations.
The practice has its roots in Latin America, said K.B. Forbes, a political consultant and Hispanic activist who has served as an elections observer in Sonora, Mexico. “In the Latin culture, they have colonias, which is ‘little colony,’ literally,” he said. “In these, they sometimes have the equivalent of a precinct boss, and that’s how people move up. The [politiqueras] deliver the vote and when the candidate moves in, the theory is that they get a good post inside the government.”
Voter fraud cases originate with referred complaints from local elections officials, citizens and law enforcement, and investigators examine skewed results in particular. For example, a good indication a candidate has been cheated by absentee-ballot fraud is when he or she wins by a 70-30 percent margin at the polls and loses by the same margin on mail-in ballots.
While Texas has led the nation in voter fraud convictions since at least the mid-2000s, various factors have diminished the crackdown’s impact. These include weak penalties, a time-consuming investigative process and protests of cheating or voter suppression from the communities in which the fraud has been perpetrated.
In October, a little over three weeks before the general election, the state attorney general’s office announced the arrest of four people on voter fraud charges in Tarrant County. As usual, none were candidates for office or party leaders – the prosecutions almost never move up what many presume to be the chain of command.
Instead those arrested were small-time vote harvesters, or agents paid by candidates to secure mail-in ballots cast in their name. Most of those convicted avoid jail.
Of the 33 convictions this year, 30 have resulted in the convict going into a prosecution-diversion program, avoiding incarceration and, upon completion, usually having their record removed from public databases. Those agreements are struck between the state and the accused, often because of murky facts or poor witnesses. Many of the defendants have no criminal record to base a stiffer sentence on.
Jonathan White, who leads the AG office’s prosecutions of voter fraud cases, testified to the state House Standing Committee on Elections in 2017 that heavier penalties “would definitely help us” as a deterrent.
“These are folks that, if they know that there's a good chance of them getting caught and they know that there's a stiff penalty at the end, I don't think they're going to do what they're doing, “ White, who declined an interview request, told the committee.
Buck Wood, a veteran election law attorney and former director of the Elections Division of the Texas Office of the Secretary of State, said the state Attorney General’s office has given its investigators and prosecutors the authority to crack down on voter fraud but not the tools to do it effectively. “Mostly, it’s just for show,” said Wood, who has defended individuals accused of voter fraud. “The fact that it’s still being done, commonly, shows that they have not dissuaded anyone from this practice. These people generally don’t expect to even get prosecuted.”
Vote harvesters are agents of elected officials they will likely never meet. Leticia Sanchez, a 57-year-old Fort Worth woman, allegedly distributed payments from a local Democratic Party operative to three other individuals, who took mail-in ballots from a number of voters, forged their signatures, and cast votes for several candidates in the name of those voters. The alleged offenses happened during the 2016 Democratic primary. The judge in the case last week issued a gag order prohibiting attorneys on both sides from talking to the public.
The Fort Worth case stems from a spreadsheet of suspects from both political parties provided to the AG’s office by Aaron Harris, a local conservative provocateur who conducted his own probe of elections in Tarrant County. The list included former Democratic state Rep. Domingo Garcia of Dallas, a handful of politicians in Fort Worth, several state political operatives and the law firm Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, one of the nation's largest government debt collectors.
Just one of those apprehended appeared on the list. All have denied any connection to vote malfeasance. Harris did not return a request for comment.
“Anyone can write names down on a piece of paper and say they are suspects,” said Craig Murphy, a Republican political consultant who was among the names on the spreadsheet investigators received. “I’m outraged that anyone would put my name on some kind of list like that. “
A big voter fraud case reaching major players would be significant, said Jason Snead, senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“These are almost always small-scale people getting arrested and convicted,” said Snead, who is constructing a database of voter fraud convictions in the U.S. “The campaigns often pay a fee for this service and, in many cases, don’t even know that fraud is being committed in their name. And if they do, they can easily deny it. So what you get are vote harvesters and small sentences.”