The role of ballot harvesting in Texas election fraud

Real Clear Investigations:
Omar Escobar Jr., the Starr County district attorney, 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.”
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 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 state Attorney General’s Office, more than its 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 enforcement efforts led by the state AG’s office involving ballot harvesting make Texas, which launched its mail-in voting system in January 1986, a study in how the process works. At the same time, the state illustrates the risks of making ballot access as easy as possible.
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.
There is more.

While much of the problem is in South Texas, the Attorney General recently brought a major case in the Fort Worth area that implicated a senior Democrat official.  There have also been cases in South Texas where people were given things of value to vote a certain way.  The piece also mentions the famous ballot-stuffing incident that led to Lyndon Johnson winning his first Senate race primary.  That was in Jim Wells County in South Texas.


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