Home » Uncategorized » Vote-Farming In Texas: The Complex Interaction of Class, Politics, and Culture

Vote-Farming In Texas: The Complex Interaction of Class, Politics, and Culture

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).




  1. J. W. says:

    Re: “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.”

    Agreed. And you are right that this is the battlefront once mail-in ballot abuse is curbed. We’re seeing this in several counties where action has been taken against ballot harvesters. It seems there should at least be a procedure where the voter confirms inability to enter polling place. Under 64.009, the entire procedure must be “at the voter’s request.” So, procedurally, the politiquera (or whomever) comes in, tells officials a voter needs curbside, an official goes out to the car and confirms that the voter is requesting curbside and cannot physically enter the building. The process should not be offered to a voter who has not requested it, period. Just like a person “assisting” a voter should be chosen by the voter, and not vice-versa, but I digress.

    Regardless, would you say that 64.036 still very much applies to the curbside voting process, and that an assistant still cannot (1) assist a voter who is not eligible for assistance with the ballot (i.e. they can read and physically mark the ballot); (2) prepare the voter’s ballot in a different way than directed, or without direction; (3) suggest to the voter in any way how to vote; and of course (4) assist a voter who hasn’t requested assistance from them?

    We’re seeing some politiqueras bringing in vanloads of voters who have already been armed with push cards of whom to vote for and marked sample ballots, before arriving at the polling place. The voters are then “assisted” in the voting booth by the politiquera, who is ostensibly there for the purpose of ensuring the voter votes for the candidates indicated on the literature that’s been pre-provided. Obviously, if the assistant were providing the voter with that information on the spot, in the voting booth, it would be unlawful assistance, by suggesting to the voter whom to vote for. But, the sample ballot changed hands in the van. Depending on the facts, what was said in the van, whether it was said by the assistant, whether the assistant him/herself handed the sample ballot to the voter, and the proximity of the delivery of the sample ballot to the vote assistance, I think a case could still be made for unlawful assistance, albeit a difficult one.

    Certainly if the assistant directs the voter to the material, that would be an unlawful suggestion. Marking the ballot without direction would be unlawful as well. But — “oh, I see you have a list of candidates marked here – is that who you want to vote for?” “Um, yeah, I guess.” Done. — that’s more difficult. At that point, the best enforcement strategy might be to focus on eligibility of the voter for assistance. It’s a bit of a cat and mouse game with these guys, and we have to accept that no system is perfect, or ungameable, but we can raise the bar little by little and make it more difficult and less profitable for politiqueras to exploit elderly voters and manipulate election outcomes for paying candidates.

    • I think your analysis hits the nail on the head – it’s not that curbside voting is exempt from prosecution for unlawful assistance under Section 64.036 of the Election Code. The problem is that the person controlling the voter has so much more power over the voter when confined in the same vehicle, compared to the inside of the polling place.

      I like to suggest that at a minimum, election workers should give the voters a chance to speak for themselves, but I know this approach doesn’t solve the problem (will a voter feel comfortable to speak freely when stuck in a car and sitting right next to the driver?) And I’d hesitate to prohibit curbside voting completely, because it really does benefit people who aren’t physically able to get into the polling place.

      One option might be to add something like the oath of assistance – to at least build a paper record of who it was that actually drove the voters to the polls. Then a candidate could ask, “Okay, on the third day of early voting, who was it that pulled up with that van full of browbeaten elderly voters at the Precinct 301 polling place? Let’s see, based on the signed Affidavit of Curbside Transport/Assistance included with the precinct records, it was Bob Smith, driving a 1981 GMC van, license plate number TCC 402, transporting the following voters. Based on this, and based on the fact that I know Bob Smith was working for my opponent, I know to focus my investigation on asking these voters some questions.”

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  3. […] familiar story of alleged election fraud in a Rio Grande City school district election. And of course, it involves mail-in […]

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