AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Politicians in Texas and across the country this year have warned of the threat of voter fraud, especially in an election in which many more voters are choosing to vote by mail. Yet, the prevalence of real fraud and the extent to which it may impact elections are topics of contentious debate.
Investigative reporter Jody Barr worked to find answers on whether voter fraud is an issue and to what extent it has been prosecuted in Texas. He found that voter fraud does happen in every election. Yet, it is especially difficult to accomplish in Texas and is exceedingly rare and unlikely to affect an election’s results.
Records from the Texas Attorney General’s Office show that Texans have been prosecuted for committing voter fraud in every election in the past 15 years, including the 2020 election underway right now.
One example surfaced this September after investigators determined that Gregg County Commissioner Shannon Brown committed voter fraud by harvesting ballots to steal his 2018 race. The investigation showed that Brown collaborated with three others to apply for mail-in ballots under other people’s names, resulting in Brown beating challenger Kasha Williams by only five votes. The four now face 134 felony counts of voter fraud and are awaiting trial.
Just last month, Dallas area investigators found another example of voter fraud after busting a Carrollton mayoral candidate with a box of mail ballots. Investigators claim that Zul Mohamed opened a P.O. box in a nursing home’s name and stashed ballots in his residence. Mohamed is also accused of forging at least 84 voter registrations. He now faces 109 felony charges of voter fraud.
Despite the evidence, his attorney called the investigation a political hit job.
“My client has been running for mayor of Carrollton and he has some enemies in that city with some connections and I think he definitely has fallen victim of some framing here,” Mohamed’s attorney Shayan Elahi said.
Few complaints, fewer prosecutions
KXAN found hundreds of voter fraud complaints in records from the Attorney General’s office. Attorney General Ken Paxton said a high percentage of his office’s convictions concern mail-in ballot fraud.
Yet, KXAN’s analysis of the Attorney General’s prosecutions between 2004 and today showed that mail-in ballot crimes were less than half of his office’s convictions. Additionally, those convicted of voter fraud in Texas rarely end up in jail. Of the 138 people convicted, only 24 spent time in jail and 114 others walked away with probation or pre-trial diversion as punishment.
“That’s why it’s a prevalent problem,” Paxton said. “There’s not usually much punishment for it. But I think the good thing about finding it, and doing a thorough job of investigation and prosecution, is at least you send the message to people that if you’re going to do this, there is some risk that you’re going to end up in prison.”
Yet even that number of complaints pales in comparison to the total number of ballots cast.
Dr. Brian Smith, a political science professor at St. Edwards University, says there is not enough fraud happening to swing an election.
“No election is perfect,” he said. “But, the amount of it tends to be very, very small.”
Smith also said it would be very difficult to commit fraud to the extent necessary to change the outcome of an election, as Texas elections are typically not close. 2018’s Senate race between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke was the closest Senate election in 40 years, and Cruz still won by 220,000 votes.
If you suspect voter fraud, there are several ways to report it. One may file a police report, a complaint with the Texas Secretary of State, or with the Department of Justice.
Security versus Accessibility
Combatting fraud is further complicated by the barriers that election security measures can pose to voting. A new report ranked Texas as the most difficult state in the country to cast your ballot. Northern Illinois researchers came up with an index to help compare states based on voting laws, restrictions and deadlines.
The researchers listed multiple reasons why voting is so hard in Texas: the voter registration deadline is a month before the election, the state cut the number of polling locations in some parts of the state by more than half, and has the most restrictive pre-registration and voter ID laws in the country.
Yet, millions of voters have already cleared those barriers to cast their ballot this year. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Texas leads the country in the early voters, with more than 5.3 million ballots cast in Texas as of Wednesday.
Two parties, one message: Vote down the ballot
While the presidential election is driving record turnout in Texas, leaders in both parties worry that voters are not filling out their entire ballot. Politics reporter John Engel looked at what’s at stake as millions of dollars pour into state house races.
Gov. Greg Abbott went door-to-door to get out the vote in Fort Worth this week. His campaign launched a mid-seven figure investment in state house races, encouraging voters to vote in local elections now that straight-ticket voting is gone.
“Republicans are in a dog fight to hold onto a majority in the Texas House,” chief strategist for the Abbott campaign Dave Carney said.
Republican Party of Texas Chairman Allen West says his party has been working to reinforce the importance of down-ballot races. Democrats have the same message.
The Super PAC Forward Majority doubled its investment to $12 million to counter Abbott’s push in Texas House races.
“We don’t get Medicaid expansion had we not won 12 seats last time and potentially win a majority this time,” Dallas Democratic state representative Rafael Anchia said.
There is plenty at stake in local elections. Democrats need to flip nine seats to take control of the state house, and with those seats comes a seat at the table in re-drawing the state’s congressional districts – a fight that will shape representation in Texas and politics around the country for the next decade.
Tight races bring a new focus on Asian-American voters
Texas Republicans are fighting to win back the 12 seats they lost in 2018 to hold onto their majority, and the tight races are bringing new attention to Asian-American voters.
The Texas Tribune’s Alana Rocha says these voters often get overlooked in Texas, but Democrats are paying particular attention this year.
“Nationwide they’re 5% share of the population. So not a huge number, but they are the fastest growing ethnic and racial voting group in the country. And here in Texas, that’s true,” Rocha said. “Democrats are really honing in on districts where Beto O’Rourke outperformed U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018. And in two thirds of those districts, the share of Asian voters is double of the statewide total. So they really see that as a potential. Polling suggests they lean democratic but of course, they’re not a monolith and certain ethnicities within the within Asian voters lean different ways. Chinese Americans have largely abandoned Trump given his rhetoric on the virus and his handling of the virus.”
This voting block’s influence is especially strong in Fort Bend County, where Democrat Sri Kulkarni and Republican Troy Nehls are in a close fight to represent Texas’ 22nd Congressional District.
Kulkarni told the Texas Tribune his campaign is engaging with voters in the diverse district in 27 different languages. Nehls, meanwhile, launched an advisory board aimed at reaching out to Asian communities in the district.
‘Grim and scary’ – widespread distrust of election integrity
Reports of interference, misinformation and voter fraud allegations all take a toll on the confidence Texans have in the election process.
This week, members on Capitol Hill got a briefing about foreign interference after U.S. intelligence officials say the Trump administration has known for weeks that Iran and Russia hacked local governments and obtained voter registration data.
Texas Politics Project Director Jim Henson polled Texas voters about their faith in the election system, and he called the results “grim and scary.”
“I found it scary because the the lack of trust in the system is so widespread,” he said. “There’s not even agreement on what the problems are. People have lined up along partisan lines on the kinds of threats that they see to the system. So you really get the best of both worlds, both Democrats and Republicans see big flaws in the system and have doubts about it. But there’s little agreement on what those flaws are.”
He says partisan leaders in both parties are driving these fears.
“For Republicans… the state leadership, particularly the Attorney General’s office, beats the drum quite a bit on the issue of election integrity and voter fraud,” he said. “For Democrats, there is a long history of government efforts to limit access to the ballot box that’s taken a lot of forms over the post-Civil War history in the state. But most recently, there’s a lot of experience with the registration process being difficult, attempts at purging the voter rolls, and a whole series of laws that ultimately make it harder to vote in Texas… if you think about those two sides of the argument, they’re not really equal.”
More than half of Texans cited misinformation on social media as the top threat they see facing the election. Poll respondents of all ideologies cited this, with little divide between Democrats, Republicans and independents.
Coronavirus: Hospitalizations spike, families reunite
Pandemic response leaders are taking inventory of the state’s medical resources after many parts of Texas are seeing an increase in COVID-19 patients. After seven months of fighting the virus, state leaders say they are confidence they will be able to better respond.
This time around, there’s more testing available and a stockpile of supplies. The state has recently surged resources to Amarillo, Lubbock and El Paso – including backup for exhausted medical workers.
“None of us went into the practice of medicine to zip up body bags, we went into it to be able to help and to be able to heal,” Dr. Todd Bell of Texas Tech Physicians in Amarillo said. “And so I do think that it takes a toll on folks when when we have just a never-ending stream of patients that need to be taken care of.”
The state’s top doctors say it’s still up to individual Texans to continue to wear face masks and social distance to slow the spread.
Family members who’ve recently been allowed inside Texas nursing homes under new state guidelines say they’re already doing everything they can to stop the coronavirus from following them inside.
Dr. Mark Escott, the Interim Health Authority for Austin Public Health, warns of a possible surge in cases in November.
“This is not over for our long-term care facilities,” he said.
Right now, the state limits “essential family caregiver” visits to two hours at a time and masks are required. Facilities are also allowed to implement stronger rules or other safety policies they see fit.