The Texas Attorney General’s office this week announced that three Valley residents were arrested following an investigation of a voter fraud scheme that took place during the 2016 City of Hidalgo runoff election.
This is the latest in a series of voter fraud investigations that experts attribute to legislation signed into law last year and to a newly created voter fraud team in the attorney general’s office. Many of the investigations are based on problems with mail-in ballots.
Marcela Gutierrez, one of three arrested, is not a citizen of the United States. She is charged with illegal voting for marking a ballot without a voter’s consent, according to a statement from Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is facing his own legal troubles, which are currently languishing in limbo.
Gutierrez led the voters to believe she was demonstrating use of a voting machine, but instead cast votes on the voter’s ballot for a slate of city council candidates whom Gutierrez had been paid to support, the statement said.
Two of her fellow campaign workers are implicated in the same scheme. Sylvia Arjona and Sara Ornelas are charged with a combined total of seven counts of unlawfully assisting voters.
The charge against Gutierrez is a felony punishable, on conviction, by two to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. Arjona and Ornelas face misdemeanor charges that could result in up to one year in jail and $4,000 fines if they are convicted.
Across the state, investigations and court cases involving voter fraud have been making headlines this year.
- In Starr County, the attorney general’s office has pointed out “the lack of safeguards in the voting system to detect ineligible voters.”
- A four-county investigation in the Valley found that 165 unlawfully registered non-citizens had been removed from the rolls after casting votes in dozens of elections over the past two years.
- The attorney general’s office arrested five people in May in an ongoing investigation into an illegal voting scheme in the 2017 Edinburg City Council election.
- Last month, Paxton said that his office will prosecute a non-U.S. citizen who was indicted by a Montgomery County grand jury on two counts of election fraud related to the November 2016 presidential election.
- The Harris County Attorney and the elections chief are fighting the release of records that would show how many non-citizens are registered to vote there.
- Dallas County prosecutors in March began investigating possible fraud in the handling of more than 1,200 mail-in ballot applications for the 2018 elections.
At the center of many of these cases is mail-in ballot fraud, where “vote harvesters,” known in South Texas as politiqueros, take advantage of the elderly by marking their ballot choices for them and then mailing in the ballots or handing them over to the voter office. Persons over the age of 65 or disabled are eligible to request mail-in ballots.
“These cases highlight the unfortunate widespread abuse of elder and disabled voters in our state,” Paxton said. “Texas law provides accommodations to assist those who cannot vote their own ballots, but those provisions are being abused to deprive vulnerable Texans of their voice in government. Anyone who attempts to exploit the voter assistance process to steal votes will be brought to justice and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Complaints about voter fraud have long been an issue in Texas, where primaries and runoffs in local elections are often decided by a handful of votes.
“We’re not talking about congressional races, where there is a thousand-vote difference and that’s called a thin margin,” said Logan Churchwell, spokesman for the Indianapolis-based Public Interest Legal Foundation, a law firm that investigates voter fraud. “We’re talking local races where 12 votes, eight votes can make the difference.”
Churchwell said he has seen an increasing number of arrests for voter fraud in the wake of 2017 legislation that changed rules and toughened penalties for voter fraud.
For example, the new law closed loopholes that could lead to a lesser charge if voters had some connection to the person illegally collecting votes. The legislation also sets tougher punishments for possessing another voter’s ballot.
The law requires election officials to alert the attorney general if there is evidence that a dead person’s name was used to cast a ballot, if a voter casts ballots more than once in the same election, or if there is evidence of vote harvesting or mail-in ballot fraud.
“They are obliged to pass that up to the attorney general’s office,” Churchwell said. “It created a mandatory pipeline for investigative leads.”
In the past, Churchwell said, local district attorneys were often hesitant to take on voter fraud cases because they required a lot of work for what usually turned out to be misdemeanor convictions. And sometimes the DAs had benefited from the fraud.
Before this legislation, the best bet for individuals who believed they had lost elections due to voter fraud was to sue the winners, because criminal penalties were so weak, he said.
“In general, if you had good enough evidence to open up a case and indict someone on it, you still wouldn’t have a state jail felony that you could pursue,” Churchwell said. “That has been replaced, in a good part, by availing the assets of the State of Texas for any aggrieved party that has enough information to trigger an investigation.”
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, was one of the authors of the voter fraud legislation.
“It’s good, sound public policy,” he said.
The bill was crafted in the spirit of the federal RICO — Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations — statute, which provides severe criminal penalties in connection with organized crime, Bettencourt said.
“What we’re seeing, what you hear about is organized activity in voter fraud,” he said. “The integrity of the voter roll is paramount.”
Under the new legislation, in many cases, illegal voting is punishable by two to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
But Valley resident Richard Monte is not holding out hope that any legislation will work to shut down voter fraud.
It’s too ingrained in daily life, he said. With so many people in poverty in South Texas, residents will work to harvest votes when money — or food — is promised.
“It’s a culture,” Monte said. “People are living day to day with minimum salaries. It should be obvious. We all know this. You can buy votes for a taco and a Coke when they are hungry … They were hungry, or they had bills, or they have grandkids. That’s the way it’s done.”
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or 832-258-6119.