Voter fraud, Texas style

Ken Allard Retired U.S. Army Colonel
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With high stakes and narrowing races, will voter fraud be an issue on November 2nd? Some Texans are betting that it will be — and recent history backs up their fears.

Just look at Texas’s 23rd Congressional District, where the race is now a dead heat. The latest attack ads paint the incumbent, Ciro Rodriguez, as a Pelosi-crat, using his seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee to back Obamacare and bailouts.  Once considered a shoo-in, “Zero” is now in serious trouble, with his Republican challenger, Quico Canseco, rising in every poll.  But South Texas is culturally Latino and historically Democratic — and then there is the geography. Gerrymandered to hell and back, the 23rd District is the nation’s largest, extending from San Antonio though the Rio Grande valley to the outskirts of El Paso. Try imagining a district that goes from Foxboro, Massachusetts (where the Patriots play) to Fedex Field, home of the Washington Redskins (“the dang enemy,” in Texas-speak).

The issues are as challenging as the geography — especially jobs and border insecurity. The usual stereotypes of ethnicity and class are gradually being transformed by the new South Texas economy, where medical technology and cyber-defense now complement tourism. But no one is betting the ranch on whether economics or the Tea Party will trump the hardy perennials of local politics. With last weekend’s revelations that illegal immigrants in Seattle are brazenly supporting Senator Patty Murray’s re-election campaign, Texas Republicans are understandably worried about voter fraud closer to home.

Because of cultural solidarity or old-fashioned political patronage, elections in South Texas have not always been left to chance. In May, Texas Watchdog, an independent investigative website, provided a startlingly detailed look at political corruption in Jim Wells County, due south of San Antonio and named after a nineteenth-century Democratic boss. Reporter Steve Miller showed how the grunt work of vote harvesting is performed by politiqueros, tactfully translated as “canvassers” (“fixers” if you’re politically incorrect).

One of the politiqueras, Zaida Bueno, not only went on the record but, with cameras rolling, also showed Miller how the process of vote-coaching and absentee ballots actually works. At the going rate of three dollars for every successfully returned ballot, personal contacts generate volume — and volume counts. Meant to aid the aged, the infirm and the illiterate as well as genuine absentees, Ms. Bueno was forthright about why manipulation of the less fortunate is modest but steady work. “I have to push [the candidates]…to push their name.” While the voter may ask for suggestions, “…I vote for the one I want, the one I am helping.” And finally, “They say ‘yes,’ I put [the ballot] in the envelope, and nobody knows but me, you.”

Texas law makes it a misdemeanor to assist more than one voter, much less the informal but well-organized schemes that have become traditional. Trouble is: misdemeanors are rarely prosecuted and the fines are insignificant compared to the $30,000 that a hard-working politiquera can earn working for multiple candidates. But, legal niceties aside, can such manipulation actually change electoral outcomes?

Eric Opiela thinks so. In 2004, he ran as a Republican candidate for the Texas legislature in a district that included Jim Wells County. Winning by 60% in other counties, he drew only 35% in Jim Wells. Worse yet, an election-day victory of 5,000 votes was reversed the day after — a mysterious defeat by 800 votes. An aggressive attorney, Opiela not only demanded a recount but also discovered oddities consistent with “vote warehousing”:

  • Some 1,700 illegal votes were cast, including four by dead people. In one Jim Wells precinct, 116 ballots were unsigned, consecutively numbered and still in their original shrink wrapping;
  • In one county, 800 absentee ballot requests were prepared by 10 individuals; in another, 500 ballot requests were filled out by eight individuals;
  • The “winning” plurality of 849 was provided by 969 of these illegal ballots. Discounting them, Opiela’s opponent actually lost by 120 votes.

Opiela promptly appealed the election results to the Texas legislature. The result: nada. The powers-that-be decided that, despite the facts, a contested election would be too divisive and in nobody’s interests — theirs, of course, being foremost. It was as if South Texas had become Cowflopistan-on-the-Nueces, where politiqueras elect the local jefes for life.

That unwanted but practical education in the politics of corruption is why Eric Opiela today works closely with the Canseco campaign, supervising recount preparations, arranging poll watches and, above all, scrutinizing absentee ballot requests. He also has some advice for Republicans elsewhere next week: fight fair but y’all better watch the other guy’s hands!

Colonel Ken Allard (U.S. Army, Ret.) is a draftee who eventually served on the West Point faculty, as dean of the National War College and as a NATO peacekeeper in Bosnia (which seemed like a huge deal at the time). His most recent book, Warheads: Cable News and the Fog of War, is a memoir of his 10 years as a military analyst with NBC News and MSNBC, where he and Tucker Carlson were conservatives-in-residence.