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The scene has been set. Two independent groups were analyzing the paper trail of the March 2000 Hidalgo County primary elections. Each for very different reasons: a group of citizens concerned over voting irregularities and Tony Peña, who lost the sheriff’s race by 47 votes, and his supporters.
The two teams came up with some of the same things and independent additional things. It painted the overall picture of the South Texas voting climate.
We did not merge our findings until later, after Peña had withdrawn his efforts to contest the election. He did not withdraw because of weakness in the evidence in documenting disenfranchised voters. It was due to the prohibitive cost involved when his opponent wanted to have everyone deposed two days before the civil suit—a cost that had to be borne by the one contesting the election, not by his opponent.
It must be said that our group also reviewed the Republican primary. Nothing irregular was found in the operations of that primary’s paper trail that caused us to dig deeper, although we had reports of Republicans being told they couldn’t vote in their primary, because they had already voted in the Democrat’s primary by mail.
When word got out our group was looking at voting problems, people began to pour out of the woodwork with complaints, either as a victim or about what they had witnessed. My children’s voting rights issue paled to the information that was coming in. That is when I knew I had to read the election code. Were these incidents of ignorance to the legal process of voting or were they illegal activities.
Most of the stories centered around the South Texas politiqueras— “volunteers” working on behalf of a candidate, or two. Some are reimbursed out-of-pocket expenses for gas, food at political gatherings, etc. Others are paid thousands of dollars—under the table. You’ll never see it on a campaign finance report.
So, the focus became how a politiquera “helps” someone to vote, and the Absentee Ballots by Mail (ABBM) offered the first layer of the paper trail.
One law popped out. A person assisting another person with an ABBM could not assist more than one person outside of their immediate family. (There’s no limit on the number of voters a politiquera can assist in person during the Early Vote and Election Day.)
That seemed direct enough. If the various politiqueras were helping others outside of their family—since elections are about numbers—they were in violation. It was a misdemeanor offense and enough to get hands slapped as a signal to the rest.
We learned that politiqueras within precincts and individual cities were usually well known in the various political circles. We felt that many of these could be traced through deeper research and that is where our search began. Other layers developed. It didn’t lead us down the path of obvious assistance on multiple ballots. It led down a path of obvious forgeries.
An ABBM has a two-step process—the request and the ballot. Signatures had to match. But signatures only had to match within the context of each ballot, and that is how they are reviewed by the Early Voting Ballot Board—independently.
The post-fact review gave us the ability to line the documents up side-by-side. One member of our team began to see a pattern of suspected forgeries as she spread a half dozen out in front of her from one precinct in South McAllen. She pointed it out to the rest of the group to see if we saw it, too.
Another layer of research began as we found an overwhelming handwriting trail matching from one voter to another. It wasn’t one handwriting style; we found more than one handwriting pattern that was being duplicated on multiple voters.
The handwriting samples were so distinct we could have layered them on a light table, aligning character over character, and they would have matched. So, while the handwriting on the signatures was remaining the same, the politiqueras were making sure that the names were different.
The politiqueras are not ignorant of the law about assisting multiple people, so forgery—which is never analyzed—becomes the standard practice and a necessity to longevity in the business of voting. To pull in the numbers that get them hired for the next elections, the cost vs. income would not balance for them to hire enough people to make the handwriting styles distinctly different.
They rely on the weaknesses in the laws and established procedures, coupled with the lack of any accountability measures being used to stop them.
Peña’s group, who had gone through this part of the paper trail, found the same things.
One set looked like a child’s, and I commented, “It looks like someone sat at the kitchen table and had the family help them.”
After Peña lost the election, he told us of a gentleman who came to him saying he had seen that exact thing in the Edcouch-Elsa area—a group of people sitting around a kitchen table processing dozens of ABBMs. It made him ill and he left, but he told Peña he wished he had grabbed them and run.
The copies we made for documentation of the obviously illegal patterns stood a foot high. It wasn’t just documentation of the forgery issue—but those took up more than half of the copies. The largest percentage of that stack actually came from the same South McAllen precinct—which made our work easier due to its high voter “turnout.” But, we gathered a good cross-sampling of documents from across the county to support the overall pattern. We felt it was enough to get action from officials.
Peña’s investigation found even more with a pattern of repeat addresses. All the information was entered into a database where it could be sorted by categories: addresses, names, anything that could identify the voters.
When he hit the sort button by address, it threw another light on the theft of elections: dozens of voter names at single addresses and post office box numbers.
One address in Fort Worth came up with over six dozen ABBMs that went there and came back as votes. There were multiple P.O. Boxes in Hidalgo County with a dozen, two dozen and more voter registration cards being sent to each one. These weren’t family members sharing the same P.O. Box, or addresses that were never changed because of previous owners (which the post office is supposed to return). The trail would reveal that one individual would be behind more than one P.O. Box in the various areas of the county.
The voter registration cards could then be distributed to illegal aliens and citizens who were voting more than once in elections. They would sign the cards and go vote. Two years later a different person would be signing the same voter registration card. Naturally, the signature on the card would match when they signed in at the polls. But, did it match the original voter registration application? It is a process that has to be built up over to time to avoid detection.
Stories abounded about ABBMs being stolen from mailboxes, politiqueras manipulating the elderly in their homes with the verbal sleight-of-hand to make them think they were voting for one person and the vote would be cast for another, and more.
But, we had to sift the “stories” from the facts. People came to us with their experiences who willingly gave their accounts in legal affidavits and who were ready to testify in court.
I personally witnessed illegal activity at the polls. But, you have to know the laws to understand when something is illegal. Voter education becomes key.
When our group became involved with the citizens in Progresso, they knew who was an illegal alien and who wasn’t around town—and which illegal aliens were voting fraudulently. But, they also knew no one would help combat the problem.
Over time, our group went to Progresso and reviewed their city’s paper trail. The activity was blatant, documentable and flaunted.
A couple of stories were circulating about elderly people coming out of voting booths crying at the voting sites. It seemed strange, but soon was confirmed by two witnesses, a husband and wife serving at one polling site. She told me what happened.
They were serving for the first time as election clerks. The whole process was new to them. She witnessed one politiquera returning repeatedly with people she “assisted.” The clerk stated the elderly voters did not speak and looked unhappy to be there, which seemed strange to her. Her own grandmother was always happy to exercise her voting rights when family took her to the polls.
When the new clerk raised questions, the other clerks blew it off. When one woman came out of the voting booth crying, the new clerk asked what had happened. One election worker said, “They just didn’t get to vote the way they wanted.”
She and her husband tried to get official assistance from the elections administration to come to the site to witness what was happening. No one came. This was, again, in South McAllen.
The new election clerk had no qualms when she filed an affidavit stating the facts of what she witnessed and was willing testify to it and which parties were involved.
I once had a DEA agent tell me about his experience being assigned to South Texas. He said it was the one area where they knew that if there was smoke, there was fire.
The smoke in South Texas is so thick you can choke on it.
(Next week: Election procedures, practices and pitfalls equal problems.)
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The Progress Times is the hometown newspaper for the local communities of Mission, Sharyland, Alton, Palmview, La Joya and surrounding areas in Western Hidalgo County. We have a staff of veteran reporters who work diligently every week to bring our readers the latest news as it affects their hometown area and people.