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Mail-in ballots are “the wild West of voter fraud,” a state official told Texas lawmakers in a special committee hearing on election integrity.

Jonathan White, an assistant attorney general with the Criminal Prosecutions division of the Texas Attorney General’s Office, testified that mail ballot fraud “is by far the biggest problem that we see across the state.”

Legislators questioned state and local officials on the integrity of Texas elections, including voting by mail, at a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Election Security.

White told the panel that a lot has changed in the 10 years he’s been prosecuting election fraud, and a lot hasn’t:

“What hasn’t changed is that voter fraud is a big problem in South Texas and across the state. I don’t think it’s fair to insinuate that the majority of election fraud takes place in South Texas, because that’s not the case.

 

“That’s one thing that has changed. We know that now. We are also talking about mail-in ballot fraud as a real problem, and we’ve addressed it legislatively. Those are things that have changed in the last couple of years, because prior to that the narrative was that these things aren’t really happening. The reality of it was that it was probably a well-kept secret, a dirty little secret of certain political communities. …

 

“It is by far the biggest problem that we see across the state – mail ballot fraud – it still is. It’s the wild West of voter fraud. It’s a problem that we’ve addressed, but there’s still more work to do.”

Another big problem, White noted, is illegal voting by ineligible voters – particularly non-citizen voting. It’s happening in part because no documented proof of citizenship is required to register to vote – it’s an honor system – and in part because no state agency oversees county voter registration officials to make sure they’re maintaining accurate voter rolls.

Both mail ballot fraud and illegal voting by ineligible voters are problems in Starr County, District Attorney Omar Escobar testified at the hearing. Escobar, a Democrat, is the DA for Starr, Duval, and Jim Hogg counties in South Texas.

 

“We need to make sure that the right to vote is protected. But we need to make sure that it’s the voter’s vote, not somebody else’s vote,” Escobar began. “I think we can all agree on that. There’s nothing controversial about that.”

Escobar told lawmakers that an ongoing federal lawsuit over the county’s voter rolls revealed people registered to vote and actually casting ballots in Starr County who shouldn’t be: non-citizens, deceased voters, and felons. The discoveries prompted Escobar to launch a voter fraud investigation that so far has resulted in seven arrests.

Three of those arrested are politiqueras, campaign workers who harvest mail ballots on behalf of candidates. One allegedly submitted a mail ballot application in the name of a deceased voter. Two are accused of falsifying mail ballot applications by marking voters as having a disability who aren’t disabled.

Under a new state law signed by Gov. Greg Abbott that went into effect December 1, providing false information on a mail ballot application is now a state jail felony.

Escobar explained to the panel how the mail ballot harvesting process works. First, politiqueras collect and submit signed ballot applications from voters. Then, when ballots are delivered to voters in the mail, they visit voters’ homes and help the voters fill out their ballots.

But if voters don’t otherwise qualify to vote by mail, some politiqueras are claiming the voters are disabled when they’re not. That’s a crime. So is assisting a voter who doesn’t request or need help, or telling a voter who to select on their ballot.

“Who did this? The politiquera,” Escobar said. Why?

“It’s to ensure that the vote is going the particular way that you want it to go,” Escobar said. “When a politiquera is right on top of you, it can be intimidating.”

Now, he said, “we’re seeing a whole bunch of ‘disabled’ people who clearly aren’t disabled,” so they can get mail ballots. Thousands of ballots floating around in the mail is “an invitation to fraud,” Escobar said.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D–Laredo) asked Escobar if allowing “no-excuse” voting by mail, whereby anyone can request a mail ballot, is a solution to the problem of ineligible people applying to vote by mail.

“That would not be a good idea,” Escobar replied. “Any time you have ballots that are outside the polling location, you’re going to have fraud. … I would never recommend everyone voting by mail – it invites fraud.”

Despite bipartisan agreement that mail ballots are the voting method most susceptible to voter intimidation and fraud, the Texas Democratic Party proposed giving every voter “the option to vote by mail” as one of its March 2018 primary ballot propositions.

Starr County Judge Eloy Vera agrees with Escobar that mail ballots are susceptible to fraud. “Personally, I wish they would do away with mail-in ballots,” Vera said, while acknowledging that they are a needed option for soldiers, students, senior citizens, and disabled voters. “I’m glad someone is trying to address this,” Vera said of the DA’s voter fraud investigation.

Escobar testified that “the next frontier” of voter fraud is assisted voting – helping voters who don’t ask for assistance and may not qualify for it under the law.

Texas election code states that voters are eligible to receive assistance if they can’t write, see, or read the language in which the ballot is written. But poll workers aren’t allowed to question whether voters need assistance. “You’re going to see an army of people” assisting voters, Escobar said, “to ensure that they vote a particular way”

For now, Starr County officials are busy finding and prosecuting people who have already committed voter fraud.

“If anyone wants to look into election fraud, this is an investigation that could go on for the next couple of years,” said Robert Caples, commander of the Starr County Special Crimes Unit that’s been gathering evidence in the county’s recent voter fraud prosecutions. “People can say that election fraud doesn’t exist but maybe it’s because they don’t want to look.”

Mail ballot voter fraud isn’t a problem in every Texas county, White testified, but it’s not isolated to the Rio Grande Valley. Investigations and prosecutions of illegal mail ballot harvesting are happening in DallasNueces, and Tarrant counties, as well as Starr.

Prosecutions, and the stronger penalties for mail ballot fraud enacted last year, are expected to deter future crimes. But White cautioned that voter fraud prosecutions aren’t easy.

“We can prove that there’s fraud in many different counties around the state, and that there’s fraud on a large scale,” White said. “It’s a whole other thing to prove the identity of the person who perpetuated the fraud.”

Assistant Attorney General Brantley Starr, who also testified before the committee, agreed with White that voter fraud is difficult to prosecute. But the fact that there are few convictions doesn’t mean there’s not much criminal activity going on, he said.

“Voter fraud is … hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said. “And so, these are very difficult cases to make. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

Starr added that the OAG has seen a “significant uptick” in voter fraud referrals, including cases of organized mail ballot harvesting.

“We know now that it’s organized, we know that harvesters are trained in election law and how to subvert it,” White said about mail ballot fraud. “The question is what can we do about it to help shore up that process.”

In 2019, Texans will look to the legislature for more solutions to tame the “wild West” of mail ballot voter fraud.