Vote Fraud Made Easy

Wheelchair-bound septuagenarian Roy H. lives in a tidy brick house at the end of a shady block lined mostly with burned-out or collapsing shanties and overgrown lots in the northwest Houston community of Acres Homes.

Roy's wife moved to a nursing home late last year after she was hospitalized for Alzheimer's disease. But the retired liquor store operator is lucky -- his daughter spends part of her day with him, cleaning the house and making sure her father, a stroke victim, eats well and doesn't get too lonely. She's managed to protect Roy from most of the hazards that face the defenseless, home-bound elderly in isolated communities.

All but one.
Roy appears to have recently joined the ranks of Texas victims of a rapidly spreading form of vote fraud that involves the manipulation or theft of mail-in ballots sent to voters whose circumstances prevent them from getting to a polling place to exercise their franchise.

Elderly or disabled voters can request mail ballots by sending a signed application to the county clerk or city secretary in charge of an election. The ballot and a return envelope are then mailed to the voter's address. While the process enables the infirm to vote, it also exposes the ballots to easy tampering or theft. In recent years, stimulating large early-vote totals -- both by mail and in person -- has become a prime strategy of election campaigns in Houston. As the focus on mail ballots has increased, so has the abuse of the process.

Last week, in a memo to the Senate State Affairs Committee, Tom Harrison, a deputy Texas secretary of state, described the spread of mail ballot fraud as "disturbing and pervasive." The senate committee is considering legislation proposed by Senator Judith Zaffirini of Laredo to safeguard the mail ballot process by maintaining the confidentiality of lists of mail-ballot applications.

Harrison's memo catalogs instances of fraud in counties across the state. Even political legends such as Houston's former congresswoman Barbara Jordan are potential targets. Before last November's general election, Jordan applied for a mail-in ballot for her Fifth Ward home precinct in Houston (she still maintains her voting registration here) and listed her office at the L.B.J. School of Public Affairs in Austin as her return address. At the same time, someone else forged her signature on a form requesting that a mail-in ballot be sent to a Houston address. That forgery was detected and squelched.

Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman says that one of the easiest ways to subvert the process involves political operatives who monitor the mailboxes of elderly people who have requested mail-in ballots. The political workers tail the postman, Kaufman says, and "get the ballot out of the mailbox before [the recipient] ever knows it's there, vote it and send it back in."

In the case of Roy H. and his wife, their votes in the January 21 municipal election to pick a replacement on City Council for Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee wound up uncast in a sealed bundle of 89 mail-ins in City Secretary Anna Russell's office. Russell disqualified the bundle, which arrived by courier service at City Hall on Election Day, because it contained more than one family's votes -- an election code violation, according to Russell's interpretation. The bundle of votes was sent in by an operative of the Acres Homes Community Relations Club, a Democratic organization with a rep- utation for producing votes for Democratic candidates who contribute to the group.

During the campaign for City Council, Roy and his wife got some uninvited visitors. The first was a political worker collecting signatures from the elderly and disabled for mail ballot applications; then came another worker as a follow-up, a worker who harvested the ballots that the city secretary's office had mailed to qualified home voters. By the time the second worker dropped by, Roy's wife was in the hospital. That, however, didn't prevent the worker from collecting her ballot.

According to Roy, neither he nor his wife actually voted for any candidate. Roy says a woman he didn't know came to his home, had him sign his "X" on the return envelopes for both his and his wife's ballots, and then took the unpunched ballots away with her. Election law requires that if voters are unable to sign the sealed envelope containing their punched ballots, someone has to witness them making their mark. In the case of Roy's wife -- who wasn't present to vote, and whose ballot envelope was marked by Roy -- the witness' signature was that of the same person who sent the bundle of ballots to City Hall by courier and inadvertently invalidated them. Though Roy's ballot envelope was picked up at the same time as that of his wife, the signature on his envelope indicates that his mark was witnessed by a different person.

"Daddy, did you punch the ballots?" Roy's daughter Annette asked last week during an interview at Roy's home.

Although her father's memory is hazy at times, he seemed certain. "No, I didn't," replied Roy, who says the worker took the unpunched ballots away with her. "I said my wife wasn't here," Roy added, maintaining he never told the worker how to vote for him or his wife. In any case, a spouse cannot legally vote for an absent mate.

"I'm very particular about what my father signs his 'X' to," explained Roy's daughter. "If I had been here this wouldn't have happened. I can't understand how they got to him. They must have come in the evening."

Ironically, Roy's and his wife's mail-in ballots for the February runoff in the Council race are still sitting on a bookshelf in Roy's home. For whatever reason, no one attempted to collect them.

Mail ballot fraud is unlikely to result in penalties in Harris County. Assistant District Attorney Chuck Noll once told a legislative election committee that election law covering vote fraud is virtually unenforceable. And County Clerk Kaufman, a Republican, doubts that much can be done to eliminate the misuse of mail-in ballots.

"Once you provide a convenience to a voter, you're not logically ever going to be able to take it away from them," she says. "And it's unfortunate that there are some unscrupulous people around that want to manipulate the system to their own good."

Doris Hubbard of the Acres Homes Community Relations Club dismisses questions about the validity of mail-in votes from her home turf as contrived and racial in origin.

"Every time that there is any kind of early vote activity in the black community, they want to make an issue of it," says Hubbard. "When it goes on in the white community, nobody says nothing. It pisses me off, it does! These seniors have good sense. They're intelligent. It's like there's a national conspiracy to keep black people from voting!"

Hubbard says she was unfamiliar with the case of Roy H. and his wife, and she declined to provide phone numbers for members of her club who collected their ballots. "I know a lot of people in Acres Homes, baby, and I'm not going to tell you who I know and who I don't know," she says.

A visit to the Acres Homes Community Relations Club office also proved unenlightening. No one was inside the locked storefront office in the Masonic Lodge building on West Montgomery. Stickers for Attorney General Dan Morales and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee peppered the windows and door. "It's not open right now," offered a helpful hairdresser at the beauty salon next door. "They're only open during elections.

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