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Carrollton mayoral candidate arrested for fraudulently obtaining mail-in ballots

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Mail-in ballot application. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

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A candidate for mayor of Carrollton was arrested Wednesday night and charged with voter fraud. Zul Mirza Mohamed faces 25 counts of unlawful possession of an official mail ballot and 84 counts of providing false information on a voting application, according to announcements Thursday from the Denton County sheriff’s office and Attorney General Ken Paxton.

In a news release, Paxton’s office said that Mohamed allegedly forged at least 84 voting registration applications for Denton County residents and had the resulting registrations sent to a post office box he had obtained with false identification. At the time of his arrest, Mohamed was in the process of stuffing envelopes with mail-in ballot applications for neighboring Dallas County, Paxton’s statement said. The city of Carrollton straddles Denton, Dallas and Collin counties.

According to the Denton County Sheriff’s Office, investigators began their probe into Mohamed on Sept. 23 after county elections officials alerted them that several absentee ballots were being mailed to the same post office box, which allegedly belonged to a nursing facility.

Investigators watched the postal facility and placed an undercover officer there. On Oct. 7, police saw that a box of requested ballots was picked up from the location, and followed the suspect. A search warrant was obtained for Mohamed’s residence, the sheriff’s statement says, where police found a box containing the requested ballots, including several that were open. The fraudulent driver’s license used to rent the post office box was also found during the search.

The arrest is the second incident in recent weeks in which Paxton’s office has partnered with local officials to prosecute suspected voter fraud. In September, Paxton, who has fought efforts to expand mail-in balloting during the coronavirus pandemic, announced the indictments of an East Texas county commissioner who was arrested on charges that he and three associates committed voter fraud in the 2018 primary election by allegedly attempting to manipulate about 38 mail-in votes.

It is unclear how many actual ballots were involved in the Carrollton case, and the statements do not indicate whether any ballots were actually cast.

“Mail ballots are inherently insecure and vulnerable to fraud, and I am committed to safeguarding the integrity of our elections,” Paxton said in a statement. “My office is prepared to assist any Texas county in combating this form of fraud.”

While there are documented cases of mail-in ballot fraud, experts say it remains rare and generally involves small numbers of ballots intended to influence local elections. Several states, including historically Republican Utah, vote entirely by mail, and officials there said absentee ballots have not caused more election fraud.

Mohamed’s arrest comes less than one month 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.

Texas is among several states that has not expanded absentee voting this fall amid the 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 specific about how “disabled” is defined, and the issue has been politicized and litigated for months. 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.

Mohamed, who is running against incumbent Mayor Kevin Falconer, is being held at the Denton County jail. His bond has not yet been set.

“The fact an actual candidate for public office would engage in these activities is appalling,” said Denton County Sheriff Tracy Murphree.