Voting Rights Lawyers Defeat Texas' Bogus Voter Fraud Prosecutions
A years-long, high-profile campaign by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, to prosecute elderly Democratic Party volunteers for voter fraud because they helped homebound seniors to vote by mailing their absentee ballots -- but not signing the backs of envelopes -- fell apart on federal court house steps in Texas on Wednesday.
The Attorney General agreed to settle a federal lawsuit challenging the voter fraud prosecutions of the Democratic volunteers rather than go to trial, according to the Lone Star Campaign, which first characterized the AG's prosecutions as politically motivated voter suppression and funded the litigation. Gerald Hebert, an ex-Department of Justice Voting Section Chief and now executive director of the Washington-based Campaign legal Center, represented the Texas Democratic Party and volunteers in the suit.
"Now, none of those people would have never been prosecuted," Hebert told the Associated Press.
Abbott's office also claimed victory in the settlement, although almost all of the legal issues were resolved in the plaintiff's favor. Nonetheless, the attorney general told The New York Times the plaintiffs "discovered that their claims were without basis in fact or law" and "dropped their suit."
Abbott had spent $1.4 million in discretionary federal law enforcement funds to create a special investigations unit to find and prosecute voter fraud. The same funding source was used in 1999 in Tulia, Texas, where a state undercover agent fabricated cocaine-related charges against three dozen mostly African-American residents that ultimately were overturned and prompted gubernatorial pardons.
While Abbott's voter fraud unit did find and prosecute handful of instances of political operatives pressuring seniors to vote for specific candidates, the task force also prosecuted elderly Democratic Party volunteers -- almost all minorities -- who helped homebound neighbors to vote by assisting them with obtaining and then mailing their absentee ballots. Under a 2003 Texas law, anyone who possesses another person's ballot and does not sign their name on the back of the ballot is guilty of a misdemeanor. Depending on the number of ballots involved, the charge rises to a felony.
Abbott's investigators prosecuted a Texarkana City Council member and her granddaughter for helping seniors vote in this manner. The councilwoman, who pleaded guilty rather than fight the charges, said she wanted to teach her grand daughter about the civic process. In Fort Worth, two investigators spied on an elderly woman while she was showering and then knocked on her front door to question her, traumatizing the woman. That same neighborhood has crack dealers that were ignored by Abbott's investigators while they targeted Democrats. Other targets of the investigations moved out of state.
The prosecutions sent a chill through some of the state's African-American and Latino communities where there is a tradition of neighbors helping other neighbors to vote. The Dallas County Democratic Party stopped sending campaign volunteers to people's homes to help them register to vote. As recently as the day the suit was headed to federal court - Wednesday - Abbott's office told the media, notably The New York Times that "there is no evidence that enforcement has intimidated anyone into stopping voter assistance efforts."
AlterNet.org published an extensive report on Abbott's activities earlier this year that was reprinted as a cover story in The Texas Observer magazine and prompted renewed scrutiny in the Texas and national media of the attorney general's voter fraud task force.
According to a news release by the Lone Star Campaign, the settlement included the following terms:
- The Texas Attorney General has agreed to rewrite prosecution guidelines to reflect that voters who merely possess the ballot of another voter with that voter's consent will not be investigated or prosecuted unless there's evidence of actual fraud. Prosecutions will be limited to cases exists such as when a person illegally votes a ballot for another person or causes a person to vote for a different candidate than they wish.
- By agreeing to this settlement, the Texas Attorney General has essentially acknowledged that those who have been prosecuted to date for hyper-technical violations of failing to sign a mail ballot envelope did not commit any fraud, as he has falsely claimed for years.
- The Attorney General's filings in the case also revealed that two of the elderly plaintiffs, Gloria Meeks and Rebecca Minneweather, were no longer under investigation, a point the Attorney General had failed to tell these voters.
- The Attorney General also agreed that the Secretary of State would change instructions to voters who vote by mail in 2008. The Secretary of State had already made changes to the ballot envelope and instructions to voters, acknowledging that such changes were made as a result of the lawsuit.
- The Attorney General and Secretary of State also agreed to consider additional revisions to voter instruction language that make it clear to voters, and those who assist them, the proper procedures for voting by mail. The Plaintiff will also help the Secretary of State's office create training materials and guidelines so those who help their neighbors vote will do so in accordance with the law.
- Plaintiffs agreed to drop all pending claims except for the pending challenge to the State's restriction on a person's acting as a witness on only one mail ballot application."
In a prepared statement, Lone Star Project Director Matt Angle commented on the settlement and the partisan nature of the prosecutions.
"Voter suppression and intimidation are tools in the Republican political arsenal," he said. "Greg Abbott used them enthusiastically in prosecuting these citizens. Citizens fought back, and by agreeing to change his prosecution policies, Greg Abbott has acknowledged that he was wrong. Like any typical bully, he backed down."
Angle said the settlement would change the way Democrats could campaign in 2008.
"Texans can now assist elderly or disabled neighbors participate in elections without fear of improper prosecution," he said. "By agreeing to this settlement, Greg Abbott is acknowledging that his office was engaging in improper prosecutions."
Abbott told the Associated Press that the settlement would not curtail his office's efforts to combat voter fraud.
"This agreement in no way limits our ability to prosecute anyone or any violation of the voter fraud statue," he said.
But Angle disagreed.
"It is not surprising that Greg Abbott would attempt to spin this as a victory for his office," he said. "But the fact remains that he changed his prosecution policy because he knew that his office was racially selectively prosecuting minority activists and Democrats for hyper-technical violations of the law."