ROMA, Texas -- Modesta Vela is a spirited 60-year-old with rich black hair and a grandmotherly air who runs a food pantry in this border town. But she doesn’t just put food on people’s tables in the state’s second-poorest county -- monthly rations of produce, canned goods and rice.
“I’ve worked for over 30 years helping people in Roma vote,” said Vela, who was arrested twice in October on charges of vote harvesting, or illegally assisting voters with their mail-in ballots, the same charges she faced in 2010. ”And sometimes people try to stop you. I am doing a favor for the governor. I am getting people to vote. I am helping older citizens people who cannot leave their homes and vote.”
Omar Escobar Jr., the Starr County district attorney, a Democrat, says that far from being an exemplar of grassroots democracy, Vela is the “godmother of voter fraud.”
Vela denied the allegation, contending that the people she assists struggle with issues ranging from mobility to unpacking the multiple envelopes and instruction sheets that mail-in balloting entails.
“I volunteer to help them vote,” she said. “It’s up to the worker to do this legally and fair. I always let the people vote for whoever they want to.”
Escobar seethes when he thinks of Vela and everyone else who collects, submits and even fills out the ballots of the elderly and the infirm. He is among a group of current and former district attorneys in South Texas who say it is long past time to reform what he sees as a threat to democracy in the Lone Star State – absentee or mail-in ballots and how they are handled.
“The time has come to consider an alternative to mail-in voting,” said Escobar, who was elected in 2012 and has traveled numerous times to Austin, the state capital, seeking some kind of relief from the suspect mail-in ballot harvesting he sees every election. “We need to replace it with something better. Something that can’t be hijacked.”
This puts Escobar and his colleagues at odds with national trends aimed at increasing ballot access. Twenty-two states allow all-mail voting in special districts, municipal elections, or when candidates are unopposed. Mail-in voting nationally tripled from 2.4 million voters in 2008 to 8.2 million in 2016. In most states it goes off with hardly a hitch, including in three states where people vote exclusively by mail – Oregon, Washington and Colorado.
But last November’s election changed people’s thinking about absentee balloting, after what happened in California and North Carolina.
In California, which permits the collection of mail-in ballots by third parties – ballot harvesting -- the power and game-changing potential of the practice was shown when Republican House seats in traditionally red Orange County flipped to Democrat blue in late tallies of absentee votes. The Los Angeles Times reported that “Dreamers,” noncitizens brought to the U.S. illegally as children, were active in the vote-turnout effort, and it highlighted an apparent instance of late-vote harvesting by one.
In North Carolina, such harvesting is illegal; only close relatives, guardians or state-authorized teams are allowed to assist with mail-in ballots. When it was discovered that Mark Harris, a Republican congressional hopeful, used a known vote harvester to collect several hundred ballots in 2016, his putative victory by 905 votes was overthrown. Election officials last week voted unanimously to order a new election.
The only thing that could surprise anyone in Texas about the North Carolina race is that it happened in such a prominent election contest. Since 2005, Texas has prosecuted crimes related to elections more than any other state.
Although national attention focuses on whether fraud could alter the outcome of major races, much of the fraud in Texas happens in down-ballot contests that can be decided by a couple dozen votes or less. Races for justice of the peace, school trustee, and a utility board have all been influenced by harvesting. Still other races for district attorney and state representative have come under suspicion. But regardless, such local contests can be the building blocks of political organization.
Since January of 2018, 33 people have been convicted of election crimes in cases brought by the office of Republican state Attorney General Ken Paxton, more than the combined total for the previous five years. Thirteen more individuals have pending charges; six of those cases involve vote harvesting.
Local prosecutors like Escobar who pursue their own election fraud investigations are rare. The time-consuming process of investigating the cases, often-reluctant witnesses, and other crime-fighting demands make aggressive local policing difficult.
But the state Attorney General's enforcement efforts make Texas, which launched its mail-in voting system in January 1986, a study in how ballot harvesting works. At the same time, the state illustrates the risks of making ballot access as easy as possible.
More Feature Than Bug
Election shenanigans seem less a bug than a feature of American democracy, stretching back to Colonial times, when whiskey was an emolument of voter loyalty, and to later eras when campaign “walk-around money” powered political machines from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles.
Texas itself has a storied history of electoral fraud. In 1948, late “phantom” ballots turned up in Jim Wells County in South Texas and put a young Lyndon B. Johnson over the top in the infamous “Landslide Lyndon” election that catapulted the future president to the U.S. Senate.
Nowadays south Texas, including Jim Wells County, still figures in electoral mischief -- involving mail-in ballots. The irregularities happen primarily in majority Hispanic precincts, where communities form tight relationships of trust and helpfulness and a friend or acquaintance offering assistance of any sort is appreciated.
Often that help involves mailed ballots. Texas law on absentee voting covers people who can’t get to the polls, particularly the elderly or disabled, and prohibits anyone assisting them from suggesting by word, sign or gesture how a voter should vote, or marking a person's ballot without consent. But away from the on-site monitors and electioneering restrictions at traditional polling places, the law is often honored in the breach.
The most prevalent practice of harvesting begins with obtaining voter lists, which are public records. These lists help ballot harvesters identify the elderly and the sick in their communities.
The ballot harvesters encourage these neighbors to request mail-in ballots -- or may even request them on behalf of unaware voters. Often, a harvester shows up at a voter’s home with an offer of help around the time the ballot arrives in the mail.
Sitting with the voter, the harvester might advise who would be the best candidate for a race that most voters are unfamiliar with. Sometimes the harvester will help fill out the ballot. She – since vote harvesters are usually female -- might offer to mail the ballot for the voter.
“We have 17 precincts and, of these, three are problems,” said Laura Warnix, elections administrator in Bee County, an hour south of San Antonio. Warnix ticks off a list of names of locals she knows engage in illegal ballot work.
“We know who they are, we file complaints with the state, we tell local investigators and we catch some of them,” she said. “But it doesn’t go away.”
The most common tipoff to a tampered election comes in a comparison of the three modes of balloting: early voting, mail-in voting and voting on Election Day itself. The results in a fair-and-square contest should look similar in terms of vote percentage won by each candidate. But a red flag for elections administrators would be a candidate pulling, say, 80 percent of the mail-in total and only 45 percent in the other two pools of votes. In the North Carolina investigation, first-place finisher Harris narrowly won the overall vote but had a lopsided margin in mail-in votes. One concern about efforts to have everyone vote by mail is that these comparisons will be lost, making it harder to find anomalies that suggest fraud.
In 2010, Zaida Bueno, a vote harvester in Alice, Texas, Jim Wells’ county seat, described the vote harvester’s craft in detail (video below). This was six weeks before she was sentenced to a year of probation after pleading guilty to four misdemeanor counts of mail-in ballot fraud in a 2008 local primary election.
Bueno was a typical South Texas harvester; in her mid-50s, just getting by financially, living in a rental home with sons, daughters, grandchildren. She’d been working mail-in ballots for eight years before she was busted.
She cared nothing about politics and had lived in the area for almost four decades. “I know the whole town of Alice,” she said. For years she had been a private caregiver, working in the homes of the elderly, meeting people the way anyone living in a town gets to know longtime neighbors.
She was approached by a neighbor running for the local school board, Elida Garza, who told her how to handle the mail-in ballots.
Bueno learned fast.
“First you get a white card about this big,” Bueno said, holding her hands apart. “That's a ballot application, so you” -- the voter -- “can get your ballot at the house. And on the top it says your name, it says your address. … It says your vote registration number.”
Next, “I knock on door. I would tell them I am Zaida Bueno and I am working with elections, and I said … ‘I’m gonna register you so that you can get your ballot by mail.’”
Like many harvesters, Bueno knew the people she approached. Some harvesters make friends with the elderly at local nursing homes, community centers, bingo parlors. They know the homebound and those who might need help filling out the ballot because they can’t read or write English.
After a voter signed the mail-in ballot application, Bueno would mail it and return several days later. “When this ballot came in” the mail, “I would go to every house and ask, ‘Did you get your ballot?’” she said. When the ballot arrived, Bueno finished the job.
“I ask you, ‘Who do you want to vote for?’… [but] I vote for the one I want, the one I'm helping,” she said, referring to the candidate on whose behalf she is being paid.
Then she mailed the ballots, without signing as a witness as legally required. "I put [the ballots] in my bag,” she said. “I want to make sure nobody sees, you know, you're not supposed to do [this]. I go to the post office and make sure no [one is] surrounding” her, then she dropped the ballots in the mail.
She said she shepherded mail-in ballots for most anyone: “The whole county and the whole courthouse – city council, school board, any election you name I’ve done."
2010 Texas Watchdog video: Zaida Bueno explains mail-ballot harvesting.
Although her words and actions suggest she knew or thought she was crossing some line, Bueno said she was never told she was violating the law, and after all, it was the candidates themselves who were giving her the instructions. "I would not have done if I thought it was illegal," she said.
Harvesters are generally paid by the ballot or by the application. Bueno said she made $1 per application. State records show she earned $1,525 in the three months leading up to the 2008 Democratic primary as a canvasser for Armando Barrera, who upset the incumbent in the primary by 350 votes and eventually became district attorney.
Barrera, now in private practice, said he doesn’t recall Bueno, nor does he remember who was hired to work the streets for him to get out voters. He also said he doesn’t recall the 2008 trial in which Cindy Villarreal, a ballot harvesting colleague of Bueno, said in a deposition that she worked for a slate of candidates including Barrera. Records show Barrera’s campaign paid Villarreal $900.
Bueno, Vela, Villarreal and their peers are small players in the mail-in ballot game. The system seems to offer them some protection. When caught, they rarely get much of a sentence beyond probation and a fine. When their names show up on financial disclosure forms, candidates and campaign officers have plausible deniability, claiming they had no idea what these workers were up to on the streets.
Some election workers, like Vela, deny ever getting paid but campaign finance records show she received two $100 payments in 2014 for work for state Rep. Ryan Guillen. Guillen, a nine-term Democratic lawmaker who in 2010 attended several meetings of South Texas elections administrators seeking heftier penalties for mail-in ballot fraud, did not return a call from RealClearInvestigations.
Although Texas has devoted more resources than any other state to investigating election fraud, its efforts to crack down are limited by frequent plea bargains; almost all of the people convicted of such crimes agree to deals that involve no jail time.
“Other states don’t pay as much attention to it but it got so organized in Texas, something had to be done,” said Buck Wood, a veteran election law attorney and former director of the Elections Division of the Texas Office of the Secretary of State. Texas, he said, also has more elections than other states, and that brings attention to these issues. “You have so many people working this system,” Wood said. “Some of these workers can make $4,000 or $5,000 in an election.”
Wood’s idea to fix it: require a doctor’s note to obtain a mail-in ballot, certifying a voter cannot make it to the polls; he said that should all but eliminate third-party ballot requests. Bee County District Attorney Jose Aliseda says the practice has been so corrupted that the only solution is abolishing mail-in voting.
“The more you leave something open to abuse, you cheapen it,” said Aliseda, a former Republican state representative. “It then is no longer a sacred right, and it is left open to questioning the result.”
Aliseda was criticized by both his friends and foes in 1990 when he successfully prosecuted a local woman for mail-in ballot fraud when he was county attorney and a Democrat at the time. In what is considered one of the state’s first mail-in ballot fraud cases, Lucilla Guerrero, a campaign worker, filled out a mail-in ballot for an elderly voter, paying $5 for her vote in a local race for justice of the peace.
Aliseda, who came to the U.S. from Mexico City as a youth, said the practice of harvesting was imported from villages in Latin America. Before mail-in balloting, fixing the vote was done at the polls through coaching, lobbying and intimidation. Mail-ins made it easier and less conspicuous. In the old days, the voting help relied on a more heavy-handed approach and could be paid for with a job or municipal board position.
“A lot of positions on these boards are coveted in the community, and that’s been a South Texas legacy from when the Spanish were here,” Aliseda said. “It is a system of the patrón, or patronage.”
Those days have changed for the most part. Political meddlers don’t seek power but extra money. And office holders aren’t in a hurry to stop it, until there’s a national scandal.
“But in North Carolina, it takes on new importance because it happened in a high-profile race,” said Teddy Rave, a law professor and elections expert at the University of Houston. “That’s what is going to get a conversation about vote harvesting started.”