By Nicole Cobler
BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Until the day she was arrested, 53-year-old Vicenta Verino spent years canvassing poor, elderly and mostly Latino neighborhoods, harvesting mail-in ballots for candidates who paid her to bring in votes. Her crime: unlawful assistance of a voter, an offense that would not have been prevented by the Texas voter ID law.
Texas officials claim that the law is needed to prevent fraud, but the office of the attorney general of Texas has prosecuted only 15 cases between the 2012 primary election and July of this year, according to a News21 review of more than 360 allegations the office received in that time.
Eleven of those 15 are cases are similar to Verino’s, in which “politiqueras” – people hired by local candidates in predominantly Latino communities – collect and mail ballots for mostly elderly local voters. Texas election laws restrict who can have assistance while voting by mail and require a signature on the ballot from the person who assisted the voter.
“We used to work street by street seeing people, talking about the candidates, and those times, it kind of used to help the people,” Verino said, now two years after her arrest for voter fraud.
Texas’ contested law, passed in 2011, requires voters to present one of seven approved forms of government-issued ID at the polls. In July, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled the law violates parts of the Voting Rights Act. For the November election, people without ID will be allowed to vote if they sign a sworn statement. A spokesman for the Texas attorney general said “this case is not over” and the agency is considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Texans have not been required, however, to show identification when voting by mail. The only exception is if a voter registers to vote for the first time by mail and does not provide a photo ID number or the last four digits of their Social Security number. Then, local election officials can ask the voter to send a copy of an ID with their mail-in ballot.
Democratic chairman: Mail-in fraud the real culprit
Gilberto Hinojosa, Texas’ Democratic Party chairman and an opponent of the state’s ID law, said Republicans are too focused on voter ID and “turn a blind eye” toward election fraud by mail-in ballots, which is more prevalent in the state. “When you suppress the vote by this made-up boogeyman that (Republicans) created – voter fraud by voter impersonation – they put themselves in a situation to succeed in elections,” he said.
Mail-in ballot fraud long has been the most prevalent form of election fraud handled by the attorney general’s office. Records from the agency dating to the 2004 primary election show the agency opened 93 cases of election violations, with almost half involving violations of mail-in ballot procedures.
But while acknowledging that mail-in ballot fraud is a persistent problem, Hinojosa said the prosecutions disproportionately involve Latinos in South Texas.
“It’s a problem we’ve asked legislators to address because if you’re concerned with voter fraud or voter intimidation, what better place to start with (mail-in ballots) because you don’t have to show an ID,” Hinojosa said from his office in Brownsville. “I’m not saying those prosecutions are ill-intentioned, but they are very specifically oriented toward South Texas.”
Assistant Attorney General Jonathan White said prosecutors are not targeting Latinos.
“Complaints come from across the state, and we take them as they come,” he said in an email. “What can be stated with certainty with regard to geographic distribution of cases is that they correspond directly to the number of complaints alleging offenses received from those areas. Factors such as local election/political culture and heated primary elections may be relevant, but are not easily quantified.”