April 16, 2024


The Legal System

Texas used this voter fraud case to pass laws. Then it fizzled.


When the polls closed on the Democratic primary on March 6, 2018, Vik Verma was pleased. His work as election field director for Kasha Williams, a three-term Longview city council member seeking a Gregg County commissioner’s court seat, was paying off.

“In a typical race, if you’re at 60 percent in-person votes and you hit 7 p.m. on election night, you’re feeling pretty good,” he said.

But as officials tallied an unusually large number of absentee ballots, the lead began to evaporate. By the time they finished, her opponent, Shannon Brown, had eked out a five-vote victory. Nearly half his total was mail-in ballots, whose use Texas law limits mainly to the elderly and disabled. Suspiciously, hundreds from the small precinct were from voters claiming to be disabled.

Whispers of improper vote-harvesting have long drifted through Precinct 4, which encompasses Longview and Gregg County’s primarily African-American south side. Outsized numbers of absentee ballots in Democratic primaries “had become a pattern,” said Jennifer Briggs, the county election administrator. This time it appeared to have flipped a race.

“This election,” Verma said, “was stolen from us.”

For Texas Republicans eager to portray an election system awash in fraud, Precinct 4 would provide a case study of what happened when the dog finally caught the car.

Attorney General Ken Paxton, who would later file a longshot lawsuit challenging President Joe Biden’s win, dispatched an investigative team to the small precinct. Brown, his girlfriend and two associates were charged with 134 felony election crimes; the case was handed off to a Republican district attorney.

Within weeks of the indictment, a defeated Donald Trump, with the support of many Texas Republicans, launched a campaign to cast doubt on election integrity. In the Texas legislative session that followed, Gregg County Republicans led the effort to make it harder to vote by mail, invoking the hometown case.

“We’re here because we’re responding to some real problems in Texas,” Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said at the signing ceremony for his election reform bill. “We have a county commissioner under indictment for mail ballot fraud. Anybody who tells you there is no voter fraud in Texas is telling you a very big lie.”

But something happened after the political spotlight was switched off. Three months ago, District Attorney Tom Watson quietly announced the defendants suspected of stealing an election had pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor each. None saw jail time.

Brown kept his office. He admitted only to asking a woman to vote for him while she possessed an absentee ballot. “I should have better familiarized myself with all of the restrictions set forth in the election code,” he wrote in a court-mandated apology.

After all the noise and posturing, “The results were … interesting,” said Griggs, the elections administrator.

To locals, how and why a poster case for urgent election integrity reform dissolved remains a mystery that officials have been uninterested in clearing up. Watson and Hughes did not return calls. Jonathan White, the head of Paxton’s voter fraud unit, declined an interview request, as did state Rep. Jay Dean, R-Longview. Brown’s attorney said the commissioner was in a re-election campaign so was unable to address the matter.

“Honestly, when all of this happened, and certain people choose this to be the face of voter fraud, I knew it would run its course,” said Cheteva Marshall, who organized phone banks for Williams’ 2018 primary. “I didn’t believe there would be any harsh punishment. I believe it was used for political gain.”

‘You’re chasing ghosts’

For those convinced the country’s voting system is a hotbed of fraud, finding proof has been a snipe hunt.

None of the recounts, audits or lawsuits following the 2020 presidential election unearthed evidence of meaningful voter misdeeds. Of the millions of votes cast in six swing states Joe Biden won by a combined total of more than 310,000 votes, an AP investigation counted fewer than 475 potential fraud cases. Virtually all were individuals, acting alone.

The Texas attorney general’s office has closed just over 100 cases charging people with cheating in elections from 2010 forward. Most of those, too, were one-offs, in which a voter intentionally or mistakenly mishandled paperwork or tried to cast a vote he wasn’t entitled to.

Seven investigations alleged group efforts to influence an election with ten or more criminal charges. The 134 charges in Gregg County were the most in a single election by far. (Two pending cases have alleged comparable numbers.)

Experts say absentee voting is most susceptible to fraud. Yet prosecutors say it is not unusual for a complex election case to end in a plea bargain. Proving up a vote harvesting operation in a system designed for secrecy is difficult and time-consuming.

In a podcast produced for the Texas Attorney General’s office, White, the election fraud unit chief, compared it to prosecuting shoplifting in a store that has deliberately removed its security cameras to protect shopper privacy. “When you compare sales records to inventory you know stuff was stolen,” he explained. But “you just have no evidence; you’re chasing ghosts. In a lot of ways, voter fraud investigation is the same way.”

Several recent cases alleging concerted efforts to influence an election have fallen apart. In 2018, after Miguel Hernandez pleaded guilty to improperly returning a marked ballot in a West Dallas municipal election, then-Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson predicted: “This is the first of many milestones in the ongoing investigation into voter fraud in Dallas County.”

Yet the inquiry revealed only that a number of people received mail-in ballots they hadn’t requested, said Andy Chatham, who led the investigation. “There was no voter fraud,” he said.

In March 2018, three Robstown residents were indicted on multiple counts of voter fraud from a 2016 election. A year later, a jury found utility board member Robert Gonzales not guilty. “They did an extensive investigation,” his attorney, Terry Shamsie, said. “It’s just small-town politics.”

Another defendant admitted improperly helping a woman vote for her constable son, who was running unopposed. “I can’t explain what she was doing,” Paxton’s prosecutor, Lance Kutnick conceded, according to transcripts obtained by the Huffington Post. Kutnick declined comment.

National studies have concluded voting schemes broad enough to influence an election, while not unheard of, are extraordinarily rare. Yet the idea continues to animate much of the Republican Party, especially, where a majority nationally and in Texas – including politicians – say they believe Trump lost because of fraud. Paxton continues to assert that race was rigged with mail-in ballots, even as his beefed up election integrity unit at home has produced modest results.

All of which seemed to align the stars in the Gregg County case – a Republican establishment with compelling evidence of Democratic mail-in vote harvesting that subverted an election – into something of a unicorn constellation.

‘I’ve walked all these streets’

Precinct 4 spreads south of Longview roughly into a triangle encompassing the rural southeastern portion of the county. As a predominantly minority district, elected offices are nearly always held by African-Americans.

“I’ve walked all these streets,” said Steve Crane, who has worked for local Democratic candidates for decades. He said the precinct has always produced numerous absentee ballots.

Crane said that’s not surprising in an economically distressed area: many residents are elderly or sick and can’t get to polling stations. Yet, he added, anyone who has worked elections here also knows that a group of locals has long hired itself out to help round up absentee ballots for those who want the support.

“They would go out and get votes for you,” said Frank Supercinski, who has worked in Gregg County Democratic politics for nearly a half-century. “You ask elected officials if they’ve ever done it themselves, there’s no question about it. They’re afraid if they didn’t do it, they wouldn’t get elected.”

Texas law strictly limits the help outsiders can provide to mail-in voters, narrowly defining who can request, fill out and deliver ballots. Yet get-out-the-vote operations occasionally work the gaps, crossing the legal lines either by mistake or by knowingly pushing the definition of “assistance.”

In Precinct 4, Briggs said local voters had become so accustomed to the mail-in operation that “We actually had people complain that the people hadn’t come by to pick up their ballot” — a violation of Texas law that prohibits middlemen from delivering completed ballots.

One of the men linked to the operation in 2018 explained he helped voters who avoided polls out of fear. “Absentee is a way for us to vote without being harassed, without losing a job, without getting kicked off the plantation,” Dewayne Ward said.

Another of the group, Charlie Burns, Jr., acknowledged helping plenty of candidates. In an interview on the front porch of the small wooden house he’s lived in for 50 years, Burns, now 86, said he has swept up Precinct 4 votes for dozens of candidates — mostly Democrats, but also Longview Mayor Andy Mack. Mack’s office said he was unavailable for an interview.

Burns said he also helped elect Kasha Williams to city council. Verma confirmed her campaign paid the group to gather votes in the past, but in 2018 “We made a conscious decision to stay away from the mail-ballot program,” said Crane, the campaign’s volunteer coordinator.

Even in an area accustomed to flurries of mail-in ballots, the numbers in the 2018 Democratic primary in Precinct 4 were stark. A total of 9 voters in Precincts 1, 2 and 3 requested absentee ballots because a disability prevented them from voting in person. In Precinct 4 the number was 367. While in-person voters convincingly supported Williams, Shannon Brown won more than 70 percent of the mail-in vote.

A recount confirmed his five-vote margin. When a judge tossed Williams’s lawsuit challenging the election because of a blown deadline, that left a criminal prosecution as the remaining recourse.

Such efforts had fizzled in the past. “This was not the first time that there had been complaints about voting irregularities” in Precinct 4, said Carl Dorrough, Gregg County’s district attorney from 2008 and 2018. “Usually what we wound up with was an allegation by someone that said someone did something wrong. Then the source would backtrack.”

This time, a well-known pastor was persuaded to file an official complaint following Williams’s loss. In his letter to the Secretary of State’s office, DeCarlo Nelson alleged voter fraud had tainted several recent Precinct 4 Democratic primaries. Reached at his church, Nelson declined comment.

Briggs said attorney general investigators collected box upon box of documents from her office. State investigators paired with local sheriff’s deputies tracked down and interviewed dozens of voters in late 2018.

While some displayed clear disabilities preventing them from in-person voting, others described mere inconveniences – not valid excuses for mail-voting in Texas. Several appeared confused they had voted at all, suggesting ballots may have been cast in their names.

“It was a fairly well-oiled machine over there,” said Richard Anderson, a former county judge in neighboring Harrison County. “They just got caught this time.”

‘They really did their homework’

In an early sign of how politically charged the Gregg County case was, two months after the 2018 primary state elected officials and law enforcement leaders gathered for an unusual press conference on the steps of the county courthouse – simply to announce the start of an investigation. “I thought they were working for the fire department, their faces were so red,” recalled James Mathis, a former justice of the peace who also lost a primary featuring many mail-in ballots.

Not long after charges were announced in September 2020, Dean and Hughes filed bills they said were necessary to protect election integrity. Each cited the Precinct 4 case to sell the legislation.

The criminal case seemed teed-up for a statement prosecution. A former police officer, District Attorney Watson was elected on his vow to aggressively push prosecutions. Paxton’s office said it assembled more than 80,000 records in its Precinct 4 investigation. “They really did their homework,” Hughes said.

Yet Verma said unexplained delays forced the judge to order Paxton’s office to send a representative to his court. District Judge Alfonso Charles did not respond to an interview request.

The plea deals were announced in late January and early February. Brown, his now-wife Marlena Jackson, Burns and Ward were each fined $2,000 and given a year of probation.

They also agreed to steer clear of a cluster of hotels and motels at a Longview highway interchange where poor residents can take weekly or monthly accommodations—an apparent indication that some of the mail-in votes had come from those addresses. Investigative summaries suggest deputies later had trouble locating some voters.

Jason Cassel, the attorney for Jackson, who was charged with 97 of the crimes, declined to discuss her case in detail. But he said while Texas restricts who can use an absentee ballot due to physical limitations, the definition of disabled was open to enough interpretation that prosecutors could have had a difficult time proving a fraud scheme.

“It would have been a long trial,” he said.

The voter fraud ‘game’

Briggs said some of the new laws, such as enhanced ID requirements for mail-in ballots, will likely make it harder for vote-harvesters to operate illegally. Other provisions seemed more political than practical, she said.

For example, new rules still permit candidates and parties to distribute mail-in ballot applications — while prohibiting elections administrators from sending them out unless requested. “It’s like we’re the ones they don’t trust,” she said.

Although it’s too early to tell how well the laws will prevent fraud, they do appear to have made it harder for some to vote. Harris County reported initially rejecting nearly 40 percent of mail-in ballots due to the new requirements. In Gregg County, Griggs said her office this spring rejected about twice as many mail-in ballots as usual.

Verma has left Texas. To him, the rhetoric and commotion following the 2018 election only yielded inverted justice. Brown represents Precinct 4, while Williams, who Verma described as once-in-a-generation “real deal” candidate, has since stayed away from politics. Reached at her Longview insurance agency, she declined comment.

“The two parties played this for a game,” Verma said. “The Democrats just acted like Kasha’s case never happened. The Republicans say, ‘See, there’s wide-spread voter fraud!’ But they didn’t really want to investigate this.”

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