Eight votes. Eight clicks of a hulking green voting machine at a South Dallas elementary school, Precinct 3325. More than 350 people cast votes in Precinct 3325 in the primary election last May 6, but eight votes have unusual significance: The record books showed that all eight were cast by people living at 2654 Anderson Street.
But eight persons do not live there. One of them does. She is Frances Dirks, Democratic precinct chairman in Precinct 3325. On May 6, she was an election judge. More recently, she was named the first black Democratic state committee member from the 16th State Senatorial District. And she is the same Frances Dirks who has been a perennial defendant in South Dallas vote fraud suits.
“There’s just one thing I am curious about,” I told Mrs. Dirks recently as we sat inside a political candidate’s campaign headquarters. “I’ve been told that you have 10 people in your precinct listed on the voter registration rolls as having the same address as yours. How could that be?”
It was the only tense moment in an otherwise cordial interview. For a second there was silence, as her eyes questioned the propriety of the question.
“Well,” she said, “I guess over the years I have had 10 people living in my house. I raised three sons. But they are grown now and have moved away. There certainly aren’t 10 voters registered at my house. That’s just not true.” But it is.
It constitutes a felony in Texas, punishable by two to ten years in prison, to vote more than once in an election, or use someone else’s voter registration certificate to cast a ballot.
Allegations of such practices abound in South Dallas. Forged signatures on voter sign-in sheets at the polls. Electioneering inside the polling places – inside the voting booths in some precincts. Names circled in red on the voting machines. “Phantom votes,” for which there are no signatures on the appropriate voter sign-in sheets. It’s a long list. During the past two years South Dallas residents have gone to court with accusations of voter fraud in 11 precincts: 2262, 2285, 3308, 3315, 3317, 3318, 3321, 3322, 3324, 3325 and 3326.
Although all 11 precincts lie within a couple of miles of Fair Park, the political impact of their 14,990 votes goes much farther.
They compose more than nine percent of the registered voters in the 5th Congressional District. In the last general election, Democrat Jim Mattox beat Republican Nancy Judy by about 14,000 votes, out of 120,000 cast. More than 7000 of Mattox’s votes came from the 11 precincts in which charges of voter fraud have abounded. Those 11 precincts provided Mattox with more net votes-votes in excess of his opponent’s total – than the other 92 precincts in the district combined. Precinct 3325 alone gave Mattox a net yield of 1274 votes (1311 votes to Judy’s 37.) That represents the highest net yield either candidate garnered in any of the 103 precincts in the district. Perhaps more significant is how those precincts perform when Democrat is pitted against Democrat: the primaries. In the latest contested primary, those 11 precincts gave Mattox 74 percent of their votes, even though he was running against Wes Wise, who many thought would have a strong following in the black community. In Precinct 3325, for instance, Mattox outpolled Wise 482 to 28.
Ten of the 11 precincts fall into the 16th State Senatorial District and make up a breadbasket of votes that can carry a candidate. In the 1976 general election, incumbent State Senator Bill Braecklein beat challenger Tom Pauken by 842 votes out of 109,000 cast. Precinct 3325 alone provided Braeck- lein a margin of 1226 votes (1268 votes for Braecklein, 42 cast for Pauken.) The 10 questioned precincts, combined, provided Braecklein with a net yield of 7306 votes (7530 to 224).
After the election, Pauken cried foul – partly because of the voting margin; partly because of improprieties reported by voters in those key precincts; and partly because Frances Dirks, precinct chairman and election judge in Precinct 3325, went on Sen. Braecklein’s legislative payroll shortly after Braecklein was elected in 1974.
Those same 10 precincts, incidentally, went heavily for Braecklein in the primary and general elections in 1974 and helped carry him to his first term as a state senator.
The 16th State Senatorial District provides an interesting perspective on politics. The district includes the black, low-income precincts of South Dallas, and the ultra-affluent white precincts like 3348 and 3349, on the southern edge of Highland Park. In the last election, one South Dallas precinct, 3325, had more clout than Highland Park. The single black precinct provided the Democratic candidate with almost twice as many net votes as all the Highland Park precincts in the 16th District, traditional Republican strongholds, brought the GOP candidate.
The 11 South Dallas precincts in which fraud has been an issue make up half of Dallas City Council District 6. In the last election for that council seat, those 11 precincts provided two-thirds of the votes cast. The winner, Mrs. Juanita Craft, escaped a runoff by 127 votes. Mrs. Elsie Faye Heggins, the candidate who finished second, filed a suit challenging the election after she discovered evidence of fraud at the polls. Among the irregularities found: multiple forgeries of voter signatures, including that of Mrs. Heggins’ own mother.
“I might have easily lost that election even if it had been conducted honestly,” Mrs. Heggins says. “But it would have been nice to at least know that I lost it fair and square.’’
Mrs. Heggins’ suit, contesting the results of her race with Mrs. Craft, is typical of the South Dallas voter fraud cases which have been brought before district courts in the past few years. Mrs. Heggins charged that votes had been mishandled in eight precincts within Council District 6.
Among the charges were these:
In precincts 2262, 3318, and 3325, signatures were forged on voter sign-in sheets. The voter sign-in sheet is the principal document designed to protect against voter fraud: The election code stipulates that the voter sign the document and that the election judge or a deputy compare the signatures on the sign-in sheet and the voter’s registration card. If the election official is satisfied the signatures match, he or she then writes the voter’s name on a poll list and allows the person to proceed to a voting machine.
After the election, Mrs. Heggins obtained copies of the sign-in sheets and took them to a certified “questioned document examiner,” an expert graphoanalyst. The document examiner found 63 signatures which had been signed not by the voters, but by the persons who filled out the poll lists in those precincts.
Among the signatures the document examiner said were forged were those of two women who were registered in Precinct 2262 but were poll-watching for Mrs. Heggins in other precincts that day. Whoever signed their names was apparently unaware that both women had voted absentee in the election already. Both women say they never went inside the building in which the voting for Precinct 2262 was being conducted that day.
Another signature which the document examiner said was forged was that of Frank Garrett, whose name appeared on the sign-in sheet for Precinct 3325. Garrett is one of the 10 persons carried on the county registration records as living at the same address as Mrs. Dirks, the election judge in Precinct 3325.
Election officials attempted to influence voters in eight precincts: 2262, 2285, 3308, 3317, 3318,3321, 3322, and 3325. In several precincts, voters said election judges went inside the booths with voters, even when they were not requested to do so. In other precincts, voters said they were told who they would be allowed to vote for. In one precinct, voters said they were told that Mrs. Heggins, who is black, was “the white woman who is running against Mrs. Craft.”
In Precinct 3318, something happened that would have been almost impossible under normal circumstances. Mrs. Heggins received 33 votes on two of the voting machines used that day. But on a third, the machine closest to the election judge, she did not receive a single vote. Although the machine recorded 171 votes for Mrs. Craft, an official canvass showed that the machine was the only one in the entire council district that did not show one vote for Mrs. Heggins.
Forty-one persons whose names appeared on the voter sign-in sheets in five of the contested precincts swore that they had not voted.
Eight persons were not registered in the precincts in which they cast ballots.
Poll-watchers for Mrs. Heggins were forbidden by election officials to watch what happened inside voting booths when election officials went inside with voters in Precincts 2262, 3317, 3318, 3321, and 3322. Although the poll-watchers have a legal right to look inside the booths when anyone besides the voter enters, the poll-watchers said the election officials made them sit where they could not see what was going on inside the machines.
The charges raised a lot of questions about how elections are conducted in South Dallas. The court in which they were filed did little to provide answers. The case was dismissed on the grounds that the plaintiff could not prove that enough votes were stolen to have changed the outcome of the election.
Charges of voter fraud refuse to go away, however. Less than two weeks after the May 6 primary, a group of candidates for Democratic precinct chairman in South Dallas precincts charged that voting in their precincts had not been conducted fairly or legally. Raising the charges were the Rev. Miller E. Johnson, Precinct 2285; Mildred Janis, Precinct 2262; Cassie Williams, Precinct 3318; Ruby Dell Harris, Precinct 3315; James R. Brown, Precinct 3324; Margaret Rose Hutching, Precinct 3325; Lula Brown, Precinct 3326; and Mrs. Heggins, even though she won her race for precinct chairman in Precinct 3317.
Among the charges: In Precinct 3318, a recount of votes showed that 549 ballots had been recorded on the official returns, although only 373 names appeared on the appropriate voter sign-in sheets. After adding 68 absentee votes, 108 more votes had “officially” been cast than there were voters to cast them.
Fifty persons who wanted to vote for James R. Brown, a write-in candidate for precinct chairman in Precinct 3324, were told by election officials that they could not add names to their ballot. Thinking they had no choice, they voted for another candidate. Brown supported his charge with 50 signed affidavits.
In Precinct 2285, the Rev. Miller Johnson said his poll-watchers saw the incumbent precinct chairman go into the booth with voters and pull her own lever.
In Precinct 3325, several voters said they saw three names circled in red on the face of one voting machine: Frances Dirks, candidate for re-election as precinct chairman; Ron Kessler, whom Mrs. Dirks was supporting for re-election as county Democratic chairman, and Berlaind Brash ear, candidate for judge, County Criminal Court No. 6.
Mrs. Dirks contends that the only red circles to be found were on a mailer, a sample ballot that was a reproduction of the face of the voting machine.
Eight people who had mailed in absentee ballots before the mailing deadline and received postal receipts for their ballots never had their votes counted. Their names did not appear on the rolls of absentee voters. Those eight votes would have given one of the plaintiffs, Mrs. Cassie Williams, a victory in her race for precinct chairman, she contends. That led the plaintiffs to include County Clerk Larry Murdoch, who was responsible for absentee ballots, as a defendant in the case. Others named were Kessler and the incumbent precinct chairman in the contested precincts.
But the case didn’t get much farther than the one filed two years earlier. The plaintiffs made several technical and tactical mistakes in their court filings. They failed to file a written request for a recount in all eight boxes within the statutory 48 hours after the election. They failed to get their affidavits correctly documented. Again, the court ruled that they could not prove that irregularities changed the outcome of the election. The case was dropped.
One of the reasons nothing has been done about the situation lies in the tradition of Dallas politics. For decades the political establishment has taken the attitude that voter irregularities in the black community are essentially insignificant. The reasoning has been that black precincts are, well, black precincts, and that black people can damn well run their elections the way they want.
The law poses other barriers: The Texas election code specifies that in order to void the results of an election, the complainant must prove that enough votes were fraudulently cast to reverse the outcome of the election. If Candidate A can prove that Candidate B stole 100 votes, but Candidate B won the election by 101 votes, Candidate A has wasted his time and the court’s. No cigar. Adios. Better luck next time.
Those who have come up on the short end of this legal provision have difficulty grasping its logic. “If 108 votes were stolen in just one box,” said Daniel Webster, who represented the plaintiffs in the most recent case, “then something must have been very wrong in other precincts. I am convinced that a gross abuse took place in South Dallas last May, but just could not get together enough evidence to prove it.”
In cases of documented fraud, criminal charges could always be filed by the district attorney. But that has never happened in the history of Dallas County.
Another failure of the Texas election code is that it places too much power in the hands of the precinct chairman. Traditionally, precinct chairmen are named as election judges in their precincts.
Serving as precinct chairman and election judge simultaneously puts a person in position for a tremendous conflict of interest.
Precinct chairmen become precinct chairmen by being able to deliver votes. They have to get themselves elected to begin with. Candidates for higher political offices court the precinct chairmen’s endorsements because they are the basic neighborhood political managers.
Mrs. Dirks epitomizes the complete precinct chairman.
“I have lived in this same neighborhood for 52 years and I have been politicking every day of my life. Most of the people in my neighborhood would do anything I ask them to do. I don’t have to steal votes.”
John Wiley Price, board chairman of the politically powerful black organization, the Progressive Voters League, puts it another way.
“In the case of most of these precinct chairmen,” he says, “if they told the people in their neighborhood to vote for Adolph Hitler, then most of the people would figure it is in their best interest and vote for him.”
“I have people come into my polling place,” says Mrs. Dirks, “who don’t have no idea who’s on the ballot. All they know is that it is election day.”
There lies the potential for the precinct chairman to vote not once but dozens of times by telling others how to vote.
Because while it is the precinct chairman’s job and nature to push political activity in the neighborhood, it is the election judge’s responsibility to see that no political activity goes on inside the polls. For one person to have both jobs is one of the more blatant examples of the fox-guarding-henhouse syndrome for which politics has become famous.
The election code makes it a misdemeanor for one peson to influence another’s vote inside the polling place. But the code also allows the person with the greatest personal interest in committing that misdemeanor to be the person charged with enforcing the law at the precinct level. While the law bars candidates for office from serving as election judge, it specifically exempts candidates for re-election as precinct chairman from that mandate.
The law provides for the poll-watcher to be the safeguard against illegal activity at the polls. If the poll-watcher spots irregularities, he can report them to the precinct election judge, or to the county clerk or Texas secretary of state’s office after the election is over.
“We get a lot of complaints like that,” says Tony Gomez of the secretary of state’s office, elections division. “What we always do is just turn them over to the appropriate district attorney’s office. And for political reasons or whatever, the district attorneys usually tend to just forget about them.”
The poll-watcher trying to make sure no voter irregularities occur on election day is faced with an uphill battle anyway, because of another provision of the law. The law sets the election judge up as the top authority at the polls, and gives the election judge the right to evict any poll-watcher he or she feels is disrupting the voting process. The election judge could also make the poll-watcher stay too far from the voting machine to see what’s going on. Legally, the election judge can’t keep the poll-watcher from looking inside the curtains of a voting machine any time more than one person is behind those curtains. But there is a difference between what’s legal and what the election judge can get by with. The ultimate interpreter of the election code inside the polling place is the precinct judge, and that’s the law. The election judge has the final authority until after the polls are closed.
The system puts a great deal of emphasis on the honesty of the election judge. In addition to offering the opportunity to tell others how to vote, however, it offers another potential for dishonesty. All the necessary materials are provided for an election judge to cast votes for people who never come to the polls at all. The election judges are provided with a complete voter registration list, with the name and voter registration number of every person in the precinct. This allows the precinct judge to verify the registration of each voter.
But it is a relatively simple matter, if a poll worker wants to, simply to sign in a few people who never show up and then vote for them on the voting machine at the end of the day or when the poll-watcher goes to lunch or to the rest room.
“Some of those people who work the polls in this neighborhood can whip those pencils so fast that they can have three voters signed in during the time it takes a poll-watcher to sneeze,” says J.B. Jackson, a black activist who is among the South Dallas residents who have cried foul.
“All it would take is 10 votes per precinct,” says Mrs. Heggins, “and you could really have an impact on the outcome of an election, especially a close one.”
Of course there is no evidence to indicate that the overwhelming majority of the precinct judges and deputies in the 370 Dallas County precincts are anything but honest. But the system does set up a situation where precinct judges have both motive and opportunity to steal votes.
The framework of the system puts more people than just the precinct election judges in line for a tremendous conflict of interest.
Consider County Clerk Larry Murdoch, whose job is to oversee the electoral system in Dallas County. A crackdown at the precinct level would have to start with Murdoch, but it could be politically fatal for him even to point a finger.
“If it weren’t for us black people pulling the straight Democratic ticket lever when Murdoch first ran for office in 1976,” says John Wiley Price, “Murdoch wouldn’t have a job. We saved his white ass and he ought to know that.”
Voting records bear out Price’s claim. The votes cast in the two county commissioners’ districts which make up the northern half of Dallas county gave Murdoch a net loss to Republican L.E. Pillow, 129,071 to 111,871. But in the two districts of the south, Murdoch trounced Pillow, 103,767 to 45,753. As a result of the South Dallas votes, Murdoch walked away with a victory, 215,638 to 174,824. Part of the margin of victory was picked up in the Fair Park area. In Precinct 3325, he beat Pillow 1,267 to 28; in Precinct 3318, he whipped Pillow 918 to 19.
Murdoch’s bid for office came in a presidential election year, so he was obviously helped by black Democrats voting for Jimmy Carter. Still, there is little doubt where Murdoch’s political strength lies.
When I approached Murdoch about the situation in South Dallas, he reacted with indignation.
“That suit [the May primary case] was dismissed,” Murdoch said. It was a groundless complaint, he told me, “and there’s just nothing to talk about.”
Murdoch says there is no reason for a cleanup because there’s nothing to clean up.
Murdoch’s intense indignation about charges of voter fraud actually became a factor during the last court battle, after the plaintiffs named Murdoch as a defendant. Murdoch refused to let them have copies of voter sign-in sheets from the contested precincts, contending that they were not public record and that he didn’t have to cooperate with a frivolous – and insulting – lawsuit. Though the secretary of state’s office says that voter sign-in sheets are public record and must be kept on file by the county clerk for 60 days after the election, Murdoch was never compelled to produce them. As a result, the plaintiffs lost the only documents that could have proved their charges, and the case went down the drain. So much for meaningful crackdowns.
Another elected official placed in an uncomfortable situation by the accusations within the black community is county Democratic chairman Ron Kessler.
“I’ve never been able to convince myself that there was any actual illegality going on at the polls,” Kessler says. But why should he convince himself? He, too, has enjoyed the support of precinct chairmen in the black community. Why offend the majority – the honest precinct chairmen-by launching accusations at that level?
Kessler does admit that “there probably is some voter education that perhaps goes on too close to the polls. The zeal of the political campaign sometimes creates various forces [on the precinct chairmen],” he says. “I think it is certainly something that we have to pay close attention to.” There will be irregularities, Kessler says, in every election. But illegalities? Not in Dallas County.
Kessler’s feelings are not totally groundless.
Despite the accusations tossed back and forth in South Dallas last May, the situation is definitely better than in previous decades.
“In the old days, you could quite literally buy ballot boxes in hard cash,” says Dan Wicker, chairman of the Dallas AFL-CIO Labor Council and a board member of the Progressive Voters League. “But those days are gone.”
The Progressive Voters League presents quite an irony in South Dallas politics. Because most of the precinct chairmen who have been accused of fraud are members, many people think the league is crooked-a notion fueled by flamboyant John Wiley Price, PVL board chairman.
Since he became an administrative assis tant to Peace Justice Cleophus Steele a few years ago, Price has had several brushes with the law. In 1976 he pled guilty to making a false statement in connection with a bank loan transaction. After being sentenced to six months in jail, he appealed, saying he had been advised poorly by his lawyer-Steele. Price was found innocent after a new trial.
Last year Price was jailed by the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department on a traffic warrant for a ticket he received while driving his Mercedes roadster in another county.
Price contends his legal problems stem from his irritation of the white establishment. Price’s actions give his critics plenty to talk about. Last May 6, for instance, Price was photographed by the Dallas Morning News wearing a “Krueger for Senator” T-shirt as he stood in the midst of a South Dallas polling place. He was a walking violation of the election code, which prohibits electioneering within 100 feet of the polls. His explanation to a Morning News reporter: “I have to wear something.”
Despite the controversy generated by its chairman, evidence exists that the Progressive Voters League is more of an obstacle to fraud than a vehicle for it. A decade ago, it would have been relatively easy for a precinct chairman to “freelance,” or sell his precinct’s votes to the highest bidder. But with the rise of the league, there has been more unity, more block support by large numbers of precinct chairmen backing one slate of candidates. A chairman whose precinct went radically against the league ticket would now stand out from the group.
The slate of candidates supported by the league is chosen by a political steering committee made up of league officers and dozens of member precinct chairmen. The group is simply too large and diverse for a candidate to buy. And the presence on the league’s board of directors of established figures like Dan Wicker and Bishop College Professor Jesse Jones, league president, make it highly unlikely that any candidate could buy the league – at least with money.
The “buying” that goes on in connection with the league falls more into the category of the political patronage payoff. For example, Mrs. Dirks obviously helped Braecklein get elected. Afterward, she went on his paid staff. Not illegal. Just politics.
But while the League represents a shift in the type of large-scale influence peddling that has occurred in South Dallas, it has not put an end to the precinct-level tactics that go to the edge of the law and sometimes break it.
Neighborhood leaders in the black community still do “paid volunteer work,” performing services that candidates could probably obtain for free elsewhere. As a result, candidates sometimes feel they are being shaken down financially in order to get out the vote. Says one political insider, “the word is that the reason John Hill didn’t make such a hot showing in the black areas during the primary is because his campaign refuses to pay.”
There of course is nothing illegal about a neighborhood leader taking “expense money” for canvassing his neighborhood.
If even half the allegations raised by people like Mrs. Heggins were untrue, however, enough documented illegality remains at the precinct level to erode candidates’ confidence in the electoral system.
The opportunities for fraud became strikingly obvious when I poll-watched in the June runoff. I was one of five poll-watchers in Precinct 3318, which votes at the Park South YMCA, about two blocks off Oakland Boulevard in the heart of old South Dallas.
The heat was on, of course. All the publicity from the May 6 suit had focused the eyes of the media – and the state secretary of state’s office-on the South Dallas precincts. There were more poll-watchers than poll workers. No one was going to steal any votes in that precinct that day. And I am convinced no one did.
But I saw the potential for an election judge to have tremendous power on other election days, when the polls are not filled with white heat, meaning poll-watchers from outside the neighborhood.
The median age of the voters must have been 60. I have never seen so many old people in my life. Most of the voters were deposited at the front door of the polling place by two cars which I later found belonged to the two candidates in the runoff for precinct chairman.
My experience that day bore out what black activist J.B. Jackson, one of the members of the South Dallas community who is disenchanted with the neighborhood political system, had told me: “There are people in this neighborhood who go to the polls without knowing who they are voting for. If you put a gun to their heads and told them to name the candidates, then you’d just have to blow them away, because they couldn’t name a one.”
Many people who came to the Park South YMCA knew exactly what they were doing: five minutes in the polls and they were gone. But there were others, scores of them, who labored over the voting machine as if the ’ names on its face were written in Chinese.
One elderly man called the election judge to the machine.
“I need some help,” he said. “Show me who to vote for.”
“I can’t tell you that. You know I can’t tell you that,” she said, glancing up at the faces of five poll-watchers. “If you know the name of one of the candidates I can show you where the levers are.”
“Oh,” said the old man. “Let me take another look, then.” He closed the curtains. He stood there in silence for what seemed like an hour. An embarrassing situation developed. There is no way to get the curtains of the voting machine open unless you depress at least one lever. Finally he found one. The curtains opened. He had cast a vote, perhaps the first vote he had cast without help in his life.
I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if the circumstances had been different. For a moment, as the poll-watchers and the election officials stood huddled around the machine wondering if the old man would ever find a way out, I almost felt like pulling back the curtains and casting a ballot myself.
The situation tests the integrity of even the most honest individual. Dozens of voters want to be told how to vote.
Something else that happened at Precinct 3318 last June made it quite obvious how ineffective the efforts to police the precincts can be.
Because of all the turmoil generated by the accusations raised in the May primary, Kessler had requested that representatives of the secretary of state’s office come to Dallas County to ensure that everything went according to the letter of the law during the June runoff.
Halfway through the day, two men in three-piece suits showed up, briefcases in hand, ready to see that things were on the up and up.
The first thing they did was go over to the precinct chairman and ask, “Everything okay here today?”
After shaking hands with everyone in sightand declaring their good intentions a fewtimes, they left.