AUSTIN, Texas — Attorney General Ken Paxton on Thursday announced the arrest of a Democratic county commissioner and three associates in Gregg County in East Texas on charges of election fraud in a 2018 election.
In an announcement with potential significance for the November elections when voting by mail is expected to increase significantly because of the threat of COVID-19, Paxton said Gregg County Commissioner Shannon Brown, Marlena Jackson, Charlie Burns and DeWayne Ward orchestrated a vote-harvesting scheme to help win Brown win the Democratic primary two years ago.
Paxton, a Republican who has opposed Democratic efforts to expand mail voting during the pandemic, said the case proved mail ballots could be easily manipulated.
“It is an unfortunate reality that elections can be stolen outright by mail ballot fraud. Election fraud, particularly an organized mail ballot fraud scheme orchestrated by political operatives, is an affront to democracy and results in voter disenfranchisement and corruption at the highest level,” Paxton said in a statement. “This case demonstrates my commitment to ensuring Texas has the most secure elections in the country.”
Brown’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
In total, the four defendants face 134 felony charges, including engaging in organized election fraud, illegal voting, fraudulent use of an application for a mail-in ballot, unlawful possession of a mail-in ballot, tampering with a governmental record and election fraud.
A grand jury returned indictments on 23 felony counts for Brown; 97 felony counts for Jackson; eight felony counts against Burns; and six felony counts against Ward.
Penalties for the offenses range from six months in state jail to 99 years in prison.
Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have decried any efforts to expand mail voting during the November elections saying it opens the door to massive voter fraud.
Brown’s race, however, was a small local race with barely more than 2,000 ballots cast. Brown defeated his opponent, Kasha Williams, by five votes.
In his announcement, Paxton said Brown and the other defendants targeted “young, able-bodied” voters and claimed they were disabled so they could cast their mail ballots for Brown. In most cases, the voters did not know this was happening and did not consent.
Having a disability is one of the four qualifications a voter can use to be eligible to vote by mail in Texas.
The requirement hits on a larger debate over voting by mail during the pandemic, something that was not an issue in the 2018 Gregg County case. The Texas Supreme Court has said that a lack of immunity to COVID-19 alone is not a disability and does not qualify someone to vote by mail. To be eligible, a voter must have another illness or physical condition preventing in-person voting without the likelihood of harm to the voter’s health.
But the Supreme Court has not explained what those other conditions could be. It has left that decision to the judgment of the voter — and potentially Paxton, who says many of the allegedly fraudulent ballots in Gregg County were cast using the disability qualification. He has warned that he will prosecute any person fraudulently voting or giving false information about how to vote by mail.
On mail ballot applications, voters don’t have to list their specific disability so voter registrars have no basis to determine whether a person’s disability keeps them from voting in person.
But an investigation by the state could further clarify that question. That means a person making a determination that an illness would risk their health if they voted in-person could later be investigated for election fraud.
In Gregg County, the investigation began after Brown’s opponent filed suit to contest the race’s outcome. A voter’s allegation of impropriety aided the probe, according to the news website East Texas Matters.
In Brown’s race, nearly 40% of the votes were cast by mail ballot — an unusually high amount. Of those 787 votes, at least 226 — almost 29% — claimed a disability.
“Mail ballots are vulnerable to diversion, coercion, and influence by organized vote-harvesting schemes,” Paxton said. “Those who try to manipulate the outcome of elections in Texas must be held accountable.”
Paxton said his office worked with the Gregg County Sheriff’s Office on its investigation and will jointly prosecute the case with the county’s district attorney.
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