Voter Fraud, the Chupacabra and other Texas myths

Fraud? The whole point of the crusade was not to suppress voter fraud but the suppression of voting itself.

Voter Fraud, the Chupacabra and other Texas myths
Jeff Carter / HowStuffWorks, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

1.      Voter Fraud is a Fraud

Since 2004, there have been 101,623,356 votes cast in Texas elections monitored by the Secretary of State. This does not include local elections for city councils, school boards, bond issues, water districts, and the like. Records for these elections are not maintained by the Secretary of State, and they might double the total of votes cast over that period.

Since the early years of this century the Republican Party, nationally and in Texas, has been on a crusade to eliminate “voter fraud,” the umbrella term for any trickery by which known and unknown criminals either vote illegally or conspire to help others do so. In Texas, the crusade has taken the form of increasingly draconian restrictions on who can vote and how, enforced with almost Manichean zeal by two Attorneys General (one of whom became the current Governor) and a few local county and district attorneys, at the cost of millions of taxpayer dollars.

In that time, 155 individuals have been successfully prosecuted for voter fraud, another 43 are under indictment – or 0.000195 percent of votes cast. There are an additional 386 active fraud investigations, according to the Attorney General. By any metric, these numbers show that voter fraud, to the extent it exists, is miniscule. Either the Dudley Do-Rights have failed miserably to curb voter fraud, or it wasn’t that big a problem in the first place.

Voter fraud, while criminal, exerts a corrosive effect on democracy only to the extent that it falsely changes the outcomes of elections – or convinces John Q. Public that something’s rotten in Denton and all elections should be presumed corrupt and “stolen.” And nowhere, in the millions of dollars spent investigating and prosecuting voter fraud cases, has anyone even suggested that an alleged incident changed the outcome of an election.

Unless, of course, the whole point of the crusade was not to suppress voter fraud but voting itself.

There are two ways to vote in Texas: in person (“by personal appearance” as the Election Code calls it) and by mail (“voting by mail” in the Election Code, “absentee voting” in the parlance of our times). The crusade’s first target was fraud in in-person voting, and it obsessed the Texas GOP from 2003 on. The second, more recent, target was absentee voting. This essay discusses the State’s effort to suppress in-person voter fraud.

2.      The Ballad of Gregorio

Late one Sunday afternoon in October, 2008, a 24-year old man – let’s call him “Gregorio” – arrived in the little town of Los Arcos, north of Laredo. Gregorio was originally from Palau in Mexico, and he had given his life savings – about $1,800 – to a ‘coyote’ to bring him across the Rio Grande and past the border patrols.

He’d planned to get across the border and get dropped off where he could look for a job and a cheap apartment. But the coyote had news that seemed too good to be true: he already had a job lined up for Gregorio and, with that, a place to stay.

The coyote drove Gregorio to a bunkhouse at the back of a ranch outside Los Arcos. There he was introduced to “Alex,” the foreman. Alex was about Gregorio’s age and well-dressed, with cowboy boots, pressed jeans and a Western shirt. He wore a large cowboy hat of excellent black felt. Alex was fluent in both Spanish and English. He offered Gregorio dinner, then invited him to choose a bed in the dormitory-style bunkhouse, which had about a dozen bunk beds in it. There were eight other men, all undocumented Mexicans, already there. They’d begin working the next morning, Alex said.

Monday morning, Alex pulled up in a 15-passenger van and explained what he wanted from them. He would drive them from place to place in the van – some churches, a couple schools, even a city hall. There was an election going on, Alex explained. At each place, he would give them cards which they would present to the election workers. In return, they would receive a ballot which they were to complete in accordance with the instructions on a laminated card he distributed. Although he could not read well, Gregorio recognized the name Barack Obama among those on the card.

Gregorio was terrified. This was his first time across the border, but he knew what would happen if La Migra caught him – deportation, possibly preceded by days or weeks in a South Texas jail. His friends back home had told him to avoid interacting with the Anglo power structure. Do not tangle with the police. Drive the speed limit. Stay away from banks and even check-cashing places. Everything in cash.

No te preocupas, Alex said when he and others voiced their concerns. It’s all taken care of, he said with a boyish smile.

That day, Alex drove them to five different polling places within a ten-mile radius of the ranch. At each place, the election workers courteously accepted their cards and presented them with ballots. After completing them in accord with Alex’s instruction, they returned to the van, where Alex collected the voter cards from that stop and handed them their next set. Bask at the ranch that night, Alex gave each of them a $20 bill.

Over the next two weeks, the bus visited 37 polling places. The farthest was in Los Ojuelos, about 25 miles away. Alex was always well-prepared and the election workers were cordial and even seemed happy to see them.

Two weeks after he arrived at the ranch, Alex announced their work was through. He would take them to Freer, about 30 miles away, at which point they would be on their own. In addition to the cash they’d received for each day they worked, he gave them an additional $50 bill.

Gregorio never saw Alex again. He worked for a while on a nearby ranch, but eventually moved north to get away from the constant presence of the Border Patrol. He stayed under the radar for a decade but was arrested during an ICE raid on a meatpacking plant in Morristown, Tennessee, in 2018, and deported soon after. He has never told the story of his voter impersonation escapade before.

3.      The Voter Impersonation Scam

The story above is a complete work of fiction, inspired by the fever dreams of a generation of Texas GOP operatives, hucksters and elected officials. They were obsessed with “voter impersonation,” and beginning in the early 2000s, they proposed and eventually passed legislation to dramatically limit the types of acceptable documentation required of an in-person voter.

What is voter impersonation? I show up at a polling place claiming I am you and vote on your behalf. You might be dead, or homebound, or not interested in voting for yourself in that election.

Of course, to make a difference, such voter impersonation would have to occur on a mammoth scale to change the outcome of an election. For example, in 2018 Ted Cruz won his much-ballyhooed U.S. Senate race against Beto O’Rourke by 214,921 votes. Think how many "fake" votes would have to be cast to change that outcome!

And who would the impersonators be? The GOP had a ready villain: “illegals,” like the mythical Gregorio above, operating under the tutelage and direction of sleazy Democratic operatives. The fact there was no evidence of any such wide-ranging conspiracy did not deter the alamists.

According to several courts, the so-called “Voter I.D.” laws did in fact make it harder for certain classes of people to vote – namely, students, the elderly, and minorities.

One of the ironies of this First Crusade was its focus on in-person voter fraud. Not much was said about ballot-by-mail fraud. After all, if fraud by impersonation was a problem with people walking into a polling place, how much greater was the opportunity for mischief when the transaction was, as we might say now, virtual?

But this was not a problem for the voter fraud crusaders, because Texas law restricted who could use such ballots to people 65 and over,[1] which turned out to be a significant and reliable part of the GOP voting coalition. And so, the first wave of voter fraud bills was aimed at in-person voting, and absentee voting was left alone.

Until Democrats began to vote absentee in more substantial numbers. More on that in a future post.

[1]           Texas law also permits absentee ballots for people who are disabled, in jail or are going to be out of the county during an election. These were small portions of the absentee ballot users.