It starts with a knock. Someone in your family opens the door, because you’re old, most likely over 80, certainly poor, possibly infirm, probably a minority. You see a familiar face. She is a community organizer, young, passionate. She has come by often, campaigning for Obama or Wendy Davis. Today she comes bearing a fruit basket, because she wants to help. She’s also kind enough to carry in your mail.
It just so happens that today’s mail brings a large envelope. The envelope contains a letter from the Secretary of State, who thanks you for doing your civic duty. There are pages of instructions in English and Spanish. There is a mail-in ballot for early voting. There is a carrier envelope that must be signed and used to deliver the ballot. The nice woman with the fruit asks if you’d like some help filling out your ballot. Of course you would. It’s all very confusing. She asks you to sign on the envelope and says she’ll take care of the rest.
That’s one scenario. The details can change. The harvesters who show up just as your ballot is delivered, maybe they have to ask you if you’ve already brought your ballot inside. Maybe they find the package in the mailbox, put it on a clipboard, and ask you to sign your name to the carrier envelope for some bogus reason. Maybe you never vote, so these harvesters just take your ballot out of the mailbox for themselves—and you never miss it.
Why are these big envelopes being sent to many people who didn’t even request a mail-in ballot? Because before these ballots were harvested, these precincts were “seeded.” Large batches of applications for ballots, stuffed in manila envelopes, had arrived at the county elections office, each request with a name from voter lists that had also been requested from said office. That elections office alerted harvesters to when the precincts would receive their ballots by mail, so the nice woman with the fruit would know when to have her basket ready.
It can’t help that, despite his international worldview, Harris looks a bit like a redneck narc. The concealed .45-caliber Kimber 1911 he carries doesn’t lessen this image.
This is, broadly speaking, how the mail-in ballot game works across Texas and how it has worked in Dallas County for decades. You’ve probably become aware of this phenomenon only recently, when local media reported on suspected fraudulent mail-in ballots and vote harvesters who’d been caught on tape. The stories were fascinating and gave a glimpse into the shenanigans that can often tilt low-turnout elections.
Those tales are about the harvesters. They’re the minnows. The big fish, the people who organize and pay for these operations, they’re the big prize. Hooking those big fish has been Aaron Harris’ mission ever since he ran a small campaign in Tarrant County in 2015 and saw his candidate lose the day-of election 52–48 percent, but get smoked by a nearly 4–1 margin in mail-in votes. The next day, Fort Worth reporters suggested to him that these sorts of “inorganic” mail-in ballot totals are just how it goes in Fort Worth politics. “The third member of the media that called,” Harris says. “She said, ‘Well, have you figured it out yet?’ I literally stood up so fast out of my chair my knee sent my chair flying. I just started screaming and cussing at this reporter. I said, ‘If everybody knows there’s some bullshit going on, why aren’t y’all figuring it out? Why aren’t you doing your damn job?’ ”
The response—essentially “We’re understaffed”—didn’t placate Harris. “If you’re not going to do your damn job, give me three names and three phone numbers, and I’ll do it,” he said. “Two years later, we have four active criminal investigations in four different counties.”
“We” is Harris’ organization, Direct Action Texas, a political fraud-busting unit. After a few years working in Tarrant County, Harris says he pieced together mail-in ballot operations and understood the entire structure. (From top down, it goes money people > consultants > managers > ground-level operators > harvesters.) When he and his team of investigators and moles came to Dallas late last year, he says he found much more sophisticated operations, with multiple families or “silos” in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, silos that sometimes warred with each other, sometimes banded together to go to war with others.
He shows off some of the evidence he’s gathered: open records requests from a familiar name in Dallas politics, asking only for voting lists of people who’ve never before cast a vote; a name he identifies as a harvester seen all over the campaign finance report of a recent Dallas City Council victor. He names big fish, too, and their families. He’s not afraid of getting sued, he says, because he has the evidence. D Magazine is opting not to disclose the names due to the pending criminal investigation. That said, the names are not surprising.
Harris’ work has earned the scorn of those who say he’s simply a Tea Partier intent on undermining Democrats, especially Latinos. He says this theory ignores several details: one, he has gone after Republicans; two, mail-in ballots only work in low-turnout races usually found in poor majority-minority precincts; three, his unusual background.
Harris was born in suburban Tarrant County, but he moved to Brazil with his missionary parents at 3 months old. He grew up there, and his first language is Portuguese. His youth was idyllic. His biggest concern each day was hitting the beach in time to catch low tide. His high school sweetheart was American-born, too, attending boarding school in South America because her parents ran a hospital in the Amazon. When the couple married and moved back to Fort Worth for college, they assumed they would return to Brazil after graduation. But then he got into real estate investment, put down roots, began dabbling in politics. Fast-forward 15 or so years, add three kids, and now Harris is a political insider trying to expose corruption “wherever the facts take me.”
Harris has many obstacles to overcome in his quest. Despite his comfort speaking Spanish, he has not always been welcomed by the poor brown and black communities where his investigations take him. It can’t help that, despite his international worldview, Harris looks a bit like a redneck narc. The concealed .45-caliber Kimber 1911 he carries doesn’t lessen this image.
That’s why, in investigating Dallas, Harris flipped an informant, a former harvester well-known in the precincts where suspicious ballots have turned up. “She went in with a whole different comfort level,” Harris says. “These people know her. She’s been there to harvest votes. She’s been to their door 20 times. She walked in with familiarity and an ability to ask them all sorts of questions which I never—I started listening to the audio, and it was like, ‘Whoa, I can’t believe you asked that. And they told you!’ ”
Despite this success, don’t expect to see arrests for mail-in ballot fraud anytime soon. Most of the crimes in question are misdemeanors. State laws make it next to impossible to bring a successful case; one goal in the legislative special session was to put teeth into voting fraud laws. And the elections officers whose job it is to suss out voter fraud? Couldn’t they find the sort of things Harris’ team has found (e.g., a harvester who leaves a telltale sign by his unique uppercase-lowercase writing of “DAllas”)?
No, they can’t. Have you seen the sort of folks who run your precinct’s Election Day operations? Kind people. But not exactly a bunch of Matlocks.
“And in Dallas County, what do we have?” Harris asks rhetorically. “We have an operation that is much more seasoned, much more widespread geographically, but also much more attuned to how to cover its tracks. They’re good. They genuinely are good.”
By “they,” he means the big fish. That’s who he wants, the people at the top. Worried that the Dallas County District Attorney’s office would try to nail the minnows just to say they did something, Harris asked the state attorney general’s office to take over the investigation, using the evidence he’d amassed. In late June, the AG’s office agreed to do just that.
And what does he plan to tell the AG’s investigators, the folks looking to find out how mail-in fraud works in Dallas County? The same thing Harris tells everyone who has asked. It starts with a knock.