As a fundamentally (and perpetually) naive person, I am repeatedly surprised and dismayed by electoral fraud and corruption. But my naivety aside, such corruption unquestionably exists, and from time to time Texas-flavored election crime surfaces in national awareness, as in the case of three Donna, Texas politiqueras who were charged with vote-buying in a contentious school board election. (described in this January 12, 2014 New York Times article).
In the Rio Grande Valley, and particularly in local elections, politiqueras (“runners” or vote-farmers) are central players in the voting process. These are influential or aggressive campaigners who are paid to deliver elections, and who as a group have a tarnished reputation for buying or stealing votes. It would be easy to paint all politiqueras as villains, but unfortunately the reality is more ambiguous. Politiqueras exist out of need; in the best light, they actually do assist voters with rides to the polls, help in filling out absentee ballot applications, and election information, even as they steer the voters toward a predetermined goal. Many are successful not because they are bullies (although some do make effective use of threats or violence) but because they are well-known, generous, and trusted, or at least respected and feared. These positive qualities allow even the most venal politiqueras to craft convincing self-justifications for what they do.
I could not do justice to the subject of vote-farming in one or a hundred blog posts, and the sociopolitical narrative of politics, social class, race, and culture is one that deserves a library and lifetime of study. Instead, I want to focus on one interesting aspect of corruption, and that is how vote-farmers adapt their tactics to changes in state law and state enforcement.
In 2006, the Texas Attorney General announced an initiative to pursue election fraud, and set aside funds and personnel from the Special Investigations Unit to target longstanding illegal election practices. In addition to prosecutions and investigations, the Attorney General also sent attorneys and law enforcement officers across the state to educate local officials about election-related crimes.
As a consequence, some county election administrators employed heightened vigilance in discouraging candidates and campaign workers from assisting elderly voters in the voting booth, either questioning whether the voters actually qualified for assistance, or challenging the extent of the assistance being offered. (see Sections 64.031-64.036, Texas Election Code, relating to voter assistance at the polls).
In response, some politiqueras began using “curbside” voting procedures (per Section 64.009 of the Election Code) more aggressively. Candidates and campaign workers had a long and checkered history of offering rides to the polling place as a means of gathering votes. Many voters genuinely need and benefit from getting a ride to the polling place, but the risk of voter intimidation, or the possibility that a candidate can imply that a voter should “pay” for the ride by voting in favor of the campaign that provided the car causes no end of trouble, and for many years it was illegal for candidates to personally drive people to the polls.
With campaign workers being subjected to greater scrutiny in the polling place, politiqueras were reported to increasingly rely on having the election workers come out to administer voting for a busload of people at the curb. The curbside voting law doesn’t require that a voter pass some test or exhibit some condition proving inability to enter the polling place, and the curbside voting law isn’t enforced through criminal penalties like those applicable to assistance of a voter in the voting booth. With a busload of voters safely under the watchful eye of a campaign driver, a candidate can still achieve the goal of directing the votes, without all the bother of completing affidavits of assistance for each voter in sequence, and without enduring the stink-eye from suspicious poll watchers and election clerks.
As the law evolves, so too evolve the habits of politiqueras. I predict that the next hot area for election fraud will be military voting, especially given the broad relaxation of standards for electronic transmission of ballots to military voters (per the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, and the state law implementation of that law).