Demand for mail-in ballots in Texas is growing, as are the risks

The primary runoffs may not be until July 31, but the scramble for votes is already on as candidates battle more and more for the increasingly important early mail-in votes.

Thousands of Texans vote at home and mail the ballots. The process is intended for people who are over 65, disabled, out of town or in jail but not convicted of a felony.

But there's a catch.

"If there's voter fraud -- if there is -- that's where it is, with the mail-in ballots," Tarrant County Elections Administrator Steve Raborn said. "We have no way of knowing what happens in the voter's home or if someone is out there trying to coerce votes."

In recent years, mail-in ballots were most in demand during the historic 2008 presidential election, when more than 76,000 were requested from the state. More than 18,000 were sent for the 2010 midterm elections, in which Gov. Rick Perry ran for re-election, and this year, nearly 9,000 have been requested, state records show.

Concerns about these ballots are generally logged after election results are in.

"We hear vague stories out there from time to time about people trying to coerce older voters, but we get nothing concrete," said Raborn, whose office forwards complaints to the Tarrant County district attorney's office. "We usually hear from losing candidates several days after the election who are convinced there was widespread voter fraud and that people were going door to door."

Brandon Rottinghaus, associate political science professor at the University of Houston, said: "In general, there is always going to be worry. On one hand, this is one of our most sacred rights -- our democracy. But it's an imperfect system.

"There will always be a concern that the ballot is not being as protected as it should be."

Absentee voting

A 1917 Texas law allowed absentee voting, listing ways voters could qualify to vote other than on the day of the election.

At the time, the law stipulated how long voters needed to live in the community, that they should have a receipt proving payment of the poll tax and that voters whom the county clerk didn't personally know should be able to "be identified by at least two reputable citizens."

Voting by mail came later, and demand for these ballots has grown through the years.

Many candidates legally reach out to these voters, often sending campaign fliers attached to mail-in ballot request forms that are already filled out. Voters can sign and mail those forms to have ballots sent to their home.

Lawmakers long ago recognized the need to make voting possible for people who might have a hard time getting to the polls.

More often than not, these ballots are used properly, political observers say.

"Absentee ballots are entirely legal and appropriate and have been for decades," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "In every election, they get particular scrutiny because they are not votes being cast under the watchful eye of precinct monitors.

"They are filled out at kitchen tables. And we can't see what's happening at those tables," he said. "But the vast majority of them are legal votes."

Texas cases

But Texas does have a long history of questionable voting.

One of the highest-profile cases dates to 1948 and the fierce race for the U.S. Senate between Lyndon B. Johnson and Coke Stevenson. Stevenson narrowly led until six days after the election, when Box 13 turned up in Jim Wells County in South Texas. That box produced 202 additional ballots not counted in the race -- and all but two were for Johnson. That was enough to send "Landslide Lyndon" to the Senate and for decades raise questions about whether those ballots were valid. Some reported that on the tally sheet, the 202 names were in alphabetical order and written in the same color ink.

Another well-publicized case came in 1988, when newspaper reports showed that dead Texans' names appeared on petitions to get GOP presidential candidates on the ballot. While federal investigations were conducted, all the candidates were allowed on the GOP ballot in Texas.

More recent Texas cases include allegations of mail-in ballot voter fraud in a 2010 justice of the peace race in Dallas County and illegal vote harvesting in Jim Wells County during the 2008 primary, as well as complaints that nearly half the ballots cast in a 2006 primary in Duval County were mail-in. And red flags were raised in 1994 when more than 120 mail-in ballots were requested from two addresses in Falfurrias.

Thousands of Harris County residents turned up in 2004, 2006 and 2008 on voter rolls and in a federal database of death records, watchdog investigations have shown.

And in 1991, authorities learned that a ventriloquist's wooden dummy -- Yippie, who was displayed at an Arlington bar -- had been granted a voter-registration card and was on the voter rolls from 1987 to 1991. The dummy was taken off the rolls after officials unsuccessfully sought to summon it for jury duty, according to Star-Telegram archives.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said this year that election fraud investigations by his office have led to 50 convictions in the past decade, including that of a woman who submitted her dead mother's ballot and of a Harris County man who used his dead father's voter registration card.

Rottinghaus said the mail-in ballot system "does include possible elements of fraud, although it in fact has no more fraudulent outcome than you would find in any other kind of voting. It's safe and reasonably effective."

Big role in 33rd

Mail-in ballots are expected to play a significant role in the 33rd Congressional District race as the top two Democratic vote-getters from the May 29 election face off July 31.

In May, state Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth led the 11-way race with 36.77 percent to former Dallas state Rep. Domingo Garcia's 24.98 percent. That included 838 mail-in votes for Veasey and 152 for Garcia, according to records from elections offices in Dallas and Tarrant counties.

Garcia now says he's working to gain mail-in ballot supporters in hopes of countering the lead Veasey had in May.

As of last week, more than 3,600 mail-in ballots had been requested for this race. At least 1,025 in Tarrant County and at least 306 in Dallas County had been returned, officials said.

Garcia said his campaign is interested in helping the district's 9,000 Hispanic seniors vote.

"We're asking them if they'd like to vote by mail or if they'd like a ride to the polls," Garcia said.

Veasey, meanwhile, said his campaign is checking with people who have voted by mail in the past, asking them to return their ballot if they are voting by mail again.

"But once a ballot is mailed to someone's house, their home becomes their ballot booth," Veasey said.

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

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