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Forty Faxes and a Whisper

Texas Election Scandal

by GREG MOSES

"As I look back over the General Election held on Nov. 2, 2004, I know that voting is a ‘right’ that is being taken away everyday," writes Brenda Denson-Prince. But she is not writing about far away places like Ohio or Florida. She is writing about her own attempt to become the first woman in Kaufman County, Texas to sit on the County Commissioners Court. On the day after Christmas, Denson-Prince faxes me forty pages.

For the past three years the 50-year-old Texas native studied up for the position of County Commissioner by going to meetings. And she recruited the outgoing Commissioner, Ivan Johnson, to be her campaign manager. In the Democratic primary, she won handily. And right up to ten o’clock on election night, she felt pretty good about her chances. That’s about the time she says she left Democratic Party headquarters in the town of Kaufman to return home to Terrell. With virtually all nine voting boxes counted, she was about 200 votes ahead.

"Y’all better get back over here," is what Tony Crow told Ivan Johnson over the telephone not too long after ten o’clock. "They’re about to steal the election away from Brenda." Johnson was watching the phone at the Denson-Prince campaign headquarters in Terrell. So Johnson called Denson-Prince, they hopped in their cars, and sometime between 10:30 and 11:00 that night, they walked through the back door of the Kaufman County courthouse annex, where the votes had been counted.

"In the hall, there was the election administrator," recalls Denson-Prince. "She said, ‘Brenda, it’s a tie, so you can flip a coin if you want to.’" Denson-Prince would prefer to keep it off the record what she said in reply to that flip remark.

"Did you say, ‘God bless you’?" I ask Denson-Prince over the telephone on the day after Christmas. Her voice over the past two months has been reduced to a bare whisper. She spent Christmas weekend in bed. "No, I didn’t say that," answers Denson-Prince in a whisper of pure air and electricity. "I said what are you talking about, a tie?" According to the official returns, each candidate had received 2,867 votes.

"Come out here and explain," said the administrator to an assistant. Between the two of them, who both seemed pretty nervous, Denson-Prince caught the words "glitch" and "disk."

"Deja-Vote," hollered the headline in Wednesday morning’s Kaufman Herald. "A computer software glitch is being blamed for controversy that occurred Tuesday night as ballots were being counted by Kaufman County election officials," began the story.

"The problem occurred when data taken from one counting machine to another computer for collating became corrupted. The data roughly doubled the amount of votes counted for several precincts, according to Kaufman County information technology director George York." A two-column photo of York showed him testing a ballot-counting machine on Wednesday morning.

When Denson-Prince returned to the courthouse Wednesday morning with Justice of the Peace James Williams, the election administrator assured Denson-Prince that a recount could be requested at a cost of about $2,000.

Meanwhile another story in that dayís Herald reported Ohio-length voting delays. At Bethlehem Baptist Church (voting box 26) lines were said to be 45-minutes long, owing to van-loads of enthusiastic young voters from nearby Southwestern Christian College.

By the end of the day, reported the paper (quoting Election Judge Russell Jones) there were "366 voters" at Bethlehem Baptist. The paper did not explain why at 10:09 p.m. that night, only 360 ballots appeared in the official, computerized tally for box 26, a precinct that Denson-Prince won handily, with 94 percent of the vote. On the most recent count of box 26, says Kaufman County Democratic Chair George Lawshe in a Dec. 7 email, there were 342 voters and 361 ballots.

"I can not think of any reason for this," concludes Lawshe in his discussion of box 26, "other than the obvious thought that we would rather not think could happen."

The Kaufman Herald also missed a little drama that took place outside Bethlehem Baptist Church on election day. According to Election Judge Jones, in a signed statement, there was this husband of a Republican poll watcher who was hanging around the entrance to the Church for at least an hour, well within the 100 foot marker that designates a safe space for voters. This Republican husband challenged the presence of an exit pollster and generally became such a nuisance that Jones called the police. By the time the police arrived, the Republican husband had departed, but not before apologizing to Jones for the behavior that had compelled Jones to leave his rightful post overseeing the election inside the Church (at box 26).

Thursday morning, Nov. 4, Denson-Prince presented a cashier’s check for $2,000 to cover the cost of a hand count. But recounts could only be ordered by the County Judge, and he was out of town. Weekend news was about military ballots that had been mailed out but not yet returned. Indeed, one ballot showed up, but the voter skipped the commissioner’s race. So the tie lasted one full week.

On Nov. 9 Denson-Prince composed a comprehensive open-records request. She wanted to see a written explanation for the tabulation error that had reversed her comfortable lead on election night, as well as all write-in ballots for president, provisional ballots that had been rejected, and printouts of tabulations per box. On Nov. 28 she appealed her request to the Texas Attorney General.

On Wednesday morning, Nov. 10, Joan D. Neeley represented the Democratic Party at a sorting of early ballots. Of 30,000 votes cast in Kaufman County, 16,000 were early votes.

"We kept noticing ballots in the wrong piles [voting boxes] as we continued through our process and because of this we all decided we would double check each pile [voting box] for accuracy after sorting was complete," noted Neeley in a signed statement, dated Nov. 16. But according to Neeley’s statement, the double-checking was never completed. It was interrupted on Nov. 10, and when on Nov. 12 Neeley requested a resumption, she was informed that a court order would be needed to break the seals on remaining boxes.

Prior to the electronic recount, Denson-Prince released her letter to the Texas NAACP. "I as an African American female, do not feel that my rights were protected," wrote Denson-Prince. "I feel that I have been discriminated against." Her letter to the Texas NAACP was reported as top story in the Kaufman Tribune for Nov. 12. But the story never leaked out of the county, and as far as I can tell, the newspaper does not make some of these stories available online.

Saturday’s headline was matter of fact. The electronic recount had found 2,870 votes for Denson-Prince and 2,873 for her Republican opponent. Meanwhile, Saturday’s hand count yielded six more votes for Denson-Prince (2,876) and six for her opponent, too (2,879). When commissioners met Monday morning, Nov. 15, Denson-Prince’s campaign manager approved the canvassed vote. Denson-Prince had lost by three votes.

What’s surprising to me at this point is the apparent lack of support or attention being given to Denson-Prince by powers outside of Kaufman County. Last year at this time, two of the four Commissioners for Kaufman County were Democrats. Next week, if nothing changes, there will be none.

On Dec. 15, Denson-Prince filed suit in the Kaufman County District Court of Republican Judge Howard Tygrett.

"During the final recount," alleges the suit, the election judge miscounted two ballots, failing to give Denson-Prince one more vote, and failing to take one vote away from her opponent. Adding one vote to Denson-Prince while taking one from her opponent would close the race to one vote.

Then there is the matter of Mrs. Bertha Maye Malone, who was informed by a letter postmarked Nov. 2 that her mail-in ballot would not be counted because it lacked a proper signature on the envelope.

"The voter, her daughter, and husband are ready to swear that Mrs. Bertha Malone signed her ballot but might have been signed with pencil included with ballot," says Denson-Prince. This is why she asked to see the discarded early votes in her open records request of Nov. 9, and why she is not giving up. Would examination of Mrs. Maloneís envelope yield evidence of erasure, in the way that Denson-Prince discovered erased ballots during the hand count?

"Oh, the voters bring erasers with them," is what Denson-Prince was told when she asked how erased ballots were possible when the balloting pencils have no erasers.

By this time, the whisper of Denson-Prince over the telephone is too much to bear. I keep apologizing for making her talk as I go box by box over the Nov. 2 results, and she keeps answering in the most deliberate, polite manner possible. I keep thinking, this woman was born in the year of Brown v. Board.

Denson-Prince lives in a Southern town that is cut in half by an East-West railroad. She lives at the Southern tip of the Southern half, and she wins the boxes on the South side of the tracks (5, 26, 34). Her opponent lives at the northern tip of the northern half. And he wins the boxes on that side of the tracks (7, 19, 38). Three rural boxes to the East (6, 8, 9) draw upon a population that is 88 percent white and which go for the Republican, although Denson-Prince out-performs Kerry in two of the three rural boxes. After fifty years of struggle, is democracy in America still about living on the other side of the tracks?

I haven’t mentioned some other things that are mentioned in the faxes, for instance, the ballot that was "whited out" (who knows how). Or the "electrical work" that was going on in the ceiling above voting booths 1, 2, and 3 on election day at the Terrell Sub-Courthouse, 408 E. College St. Or the delay reported by Denson-Prince’s campaign rep, who reports waiting from 10 o’clock until 10:30, but who left before the tie was announced. Or the peculiar coincidence reported by Terry Crow who saw a district judge enter the counting room on election night just before the "glitch" was reversed and the commissioner election tied. Does a coincidence like that have any bearing on which judge gets to hear the lawsuit filed by Denson-Prince?

There’s a whole lot this little story canít tell you about democracy in America today. But we can listen to the whisper of Brenda Denson-Prince, and we can read her faxes:

"The responsible individuals that we have placed in authority to watch over the elections to make sure voting is held in an orderly process just makes me really ashamed of being a United States citizen when I see such abuse and abnormalities allowed to go unquestioned or investigated."

GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His chapter on civil rights under Clinton and Bush appears in Dime’s Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be reached at: gmosesx@prodigy.net