AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office arrested and charged four people with organized election fraud in the 2018 Primary Election this week.
Commissioner Shannon Brown, who won the election in Gregg County by just four votes, and three of his colleagues were charged with ‘ballot harvesting.’
The group allegedly targeted young, able-bodied voters to cast mail-in ballots by fraudulently claiming they were disabled. Marking the ‘disability’ box is one of four qualifications to apply for a mail-in ballot, but it’s left to each Texan to decide whether they qualify.
“There were 376 approximate disability applications or filing mail-in ballots in that precinct,” Paxton said Friday, comparing that number to the 12 applications total coming from the other three precincts in Gregg County.
“70% of the mail inbox were checked as assisted by a third party,” Paxton said that sparked the state’s investigation.
In total, the four were charged with 134 felonies related to election fraud. Penalties range from six months in jail to 99 years in prison.
“It is not unusual for us to be prosecuting mail-in ballot fraud,” Paxton said, although he could not identify exactly how many cases have led to convictions in the past.
While it’s not unusual, experts like Texas Politics Project Director Dr. Jim Henson say it is extremely rare.
“If we were to take the number of successfully prosecuted instances of fraudulent voting, and look at them as a share of the total number of votes cast in Texas, you know, it would be .000… you’d have several zeros before you got to an actual number of the percent,” Dr. Henson said.
Paxton has a long history of prosecuting voter fraud cases in the state.
“The Attorney General’s own election integrity website says that the office of the attorney general has successfully prosecuted 457 electoral fraud cases since 2004,” Dr. Henson said.
Others questioned the timing of the charges. Henson said while he understands the suspicion, there’s likely good reason it’s taken more than two years to charge anyone.
“The timing seems convenient in terms of Republican efforts, and particularly the efforts of the Attorney General to highlight the threat of voter fraud using absentee ballots or and mail in ballots,” Dr. Henson said, but, “Historically, these cases do develop slowly they do take they generally take a long time to litigate.”
Paxton said it’s taken a while to interview all involved in the case.
“You want to make sure that you know when you’re prosecuting someone, you wanna make sure that they’ve actually done something wrong,” Paxton said.
That includes questioning those who marked the disability box on their applications.
“We interviewed these people and find out who they are, and whether they really are disabled. In the past, I don’t think that’s actually been done,” Paxton said.
Voter advocate groups said they hope this case, along with other back-and-forth litigation this year, does not discourage vulnerable voters from trusting the system.
“You know what your health condition is like, if you meet this definition, there’s no reason that you shouldn’t feel safe voting by mail,” Jeff Miller with Disability Rights Texas said.
Miller explained Disability Rights Texas has a voter hotline for those with disabilities.
“Since March, the number one call we’ve been getting is, ‘can I vote by mail, who can vote by mail? What are the rules this week about voting by mail, just because of everything that’s going on?'” Miller said.
“Everybody’s supposed to have a right to cast an independent private ballot, and that’s what we work for here,” Miller added.