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An East Texas county commissioner was arrested Thursday on charges that he and three associates committed voter fraud in a 2018 primary election.
A grand jury indicted Shannon Brown, a Democratic Gregg County commissioner whose office is in Kilgore, Marlena Jackson, Charlie Burns and DeWayne Ward, on numerous felony charges in a scheme that allegedly involved falsely claiming voters were disabled in order to obtain absentee ballots.
County election results show Brown won a narrow victory in the March Democratic primary — 1,047 votes to his opponent’s 1,042 — with a much greater share of his support coming from absentee ballots. The indictments involve the ballots or applications for ballots of about 38 voters, and most counts accuse Brown and the others of “intentionally [causing] false information to be provided on an application for ballot by mail,” with an application indicating that “the voter was disabled, when in fact the voter was not disabled.”
An investigation into the election was announced in May 2018. The Gregg County grand jury issued indictments for 134 total counts against the four, with multiple overlapping charges involving the roughly three dozen voters. The indictments themselves offer little explanation of how the alleged fraud occurred, and do not indicate how many of the 38 successfully cast ballots.
Prosecutors did not respond to questions. Brown, Jackson, Burns and Ward could not immediately be reached for comment.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has fought efforts to expand mail-in balloting during the pandemic, announced the indictments Thursday, claiming “mail ballots are vulnerable to diversion, coercion, and influence by organized vote harvesting schemes,” though fraud in absentee voting, as with fraud in any type of voting, is rare.
The indictments come less than two months before a major national election that is expected to see historic numbers of absentee ballots, as voters afraid of contracting the novel coronavirus cast vote by mail. Republicans across the country, including leaders in Texas, have sought to cast doubt on the security of mail-in-ballots, claiming without evidence that expanding access to absentee ballots will lead to rampant fraud.
Though there are some documented cases in Texas and elsewhere, experts say voter fraud is exceedingly rare and that mail-in-ballots are a secure way to cast ballots. States that rely on universal vote-by-mail systems, like Oregon, have seen little voter fraud.
And county records show Paxton himself has voted by mail, in a 2011 municipal election. Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and President Donald Trump have also opted to mail in their ballots in the past.
“I don’t know what happened in Gregg County, but what I do know is that expert after expert has shown that voting by mail is safe and accurate,” said Mimi Marziani, president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which advocates for voting rights among other issues.
Texas is one of the few states that have not allowed for no-excuse absentee voting this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic. The matter of absentee ballots for people with disabilities has been a major point of political and legal contention over the last few months.
In Texas, voters may only vote by mail if they are over 65, outside their home county during the election, confined in jail or disabled. But state law is not very specific about how “disabled” is defined, and the issue has been politicized and litigated for months during the pandemic. The Texas Supreme Court ruled that a lack of immunity to the coronavirus is not in itself enough to qualify, but beyond that, said voters should decide for themselves if their health situation meets the state’s criteria.
When applying for an absentee ballot, voters who are disabled must check a box affirming they have a disability. They are not required to provide any documentation or details, but must certify that the information they provide is correct and acknowledge that giving false information is a crime.
Local election officials do not have the authority to verify a voter’s disability status. But voting rights advocates, as well as advocates for people with disabilities, have been concerned this year that Paxton or other local prosecutors might pursue and try to prosecute voters who cite disabilities to vote by mail.
Prosecutors did not answer questions about how they verified the disability status of the voters.
The four defendants are out on bond and set to be arraigned Oct. 9, according to court records.