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The OWLS cried foul against politiqueras at a committee hearing on elections at the Capitol earlier this week.

The Objective Watchers of the Legal System (OWLS), a local advocacy group that tends to lean to the right, testified before the Texas House Elections Committee on Tuesday, making their case against the commonplace practice.

“Let me start with a brief description of what a politiquera is: They are paid to turn out the vote,” OWLS member Norma Saldaña told the state lawmakers. “They target the low-income neighborhoods, colonias and adult day cares in our area.”

Saldaña, Fern McClaugherty and Jim Barnes comprised one of four panels that took turns giving testimony and recommendations for the upcoming legislative session. Representatives from the offices of the Texas Attorney General and the Texas Secretary of State were also on hand.

“We are asking for your leadership. Don’t turn a blind eye,” Saldaña told the committee chaired by Texas Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Dallas. “The political culture in South Texas is like no other. We need your help to get back the integrity of the voting system that has been taking advantage for decades and decades in our area.”

The OWLS expressed concern with the lack of oversight over voter assistants, some of whom recently have been sentenced to jail time for voter fraud. South Texas, in particular, has gotten a bad reputation after high-profile cases proved voter assistants were selling votes for beer, cocaine and other drugs.

However, the problem is not unique to the area. According to the testimony Tuesday, there are similar investigations throughout the state, including one in Tarrant County. About half of the state’s counties have submitted similar complaints.

The OWLS alleged many of the politiqueras prey on the elderly and manipulate their vote by either intimidating them or conning them into voting a certain way. They also alleged the voter assistants used the absentee ballots to commit voter fraud.

A prosecutor with the Attorney General’s Office said the actual theft of ballots from mailboxes is less common than manipulating voters through false pretenses.

“That is a much more prevalent type of voter fraud,” the prosecutor said. “That is the kind that has been successfully prosecuted by the Attorney General’s Office in Cameron County and in the Weslaco City election. It was the basis for overturning that Weslaco City council race.”

The prosecutor also indicated there are similar ongoing investigations in Hidalgo County, but could not elaborate.

‘IN DROVES’

Saldaña, the OWLS member, used the U.S. District 15 race as an example of the political campaigning system she disagrees with.

“They pick up our grandparents in caravans,” she said. “There’s a gentleman by the name of Vicente Gonzalez and if you look at his caravan of vehicles, it says ‘V. G.’ — Vicente Gonzalez — ‘91, 92, 93, 94, 95.’ And they are going to the adult day cares and picking up our grandparents in droves.”

Gonzalez is the democratic nominee for the seat, which became available after U.S. Rep Ruben Hinojosa announced his departure in December after 20 years of service. Republican Tim Westley will challenge Gonzalez in the November election.

“My campaign didn’t rent vans directly,” Gonzalez said in a telephone interview after the hearing. “But there were people out there who had vans that were providing rides to people that didn’t have rides to the polls, which that happens across the country, especially older folks or low-income citizens that want to vote but don’t have transportation.”

It’s possible the vans were provided by the companies he contracted to help run his campaign, he said. Vicente spent more than $300,000 in Get-Out-the-Vote efforts (GOTV) — about 100 times more than his democratic opponent Juan “Sonny” Palacios.

“I wouldn’t know because I had campaign managers that were handling all of that,” he said about the outsourcing of vans. “You’d have to ask them.”

Gonzalez’s campaign manager Josh Reyna said he could not comment on what was said or wasn’t said at the hearing because he was not privy to it. He referred questions concerning the use of vehicles used to drive voters to the polls to the companies Gonzalez contracted with.

“But the OWLS going to Austin or the Republicans holding a hearing in Austin blocking access to vote for minorities has been a common theme in the past two years,” Reyna said. “They are trying to create new obstructions and roll back those freedoms and those rights.”

Gonzalez insisted his campaign was run militaristically and by the book.

“Definitely, in a large campaign you have to hire political employees and treat them as employees,” he said. “Mine had workers comp insurance. They were insured and paid properly. They had a framework of ethics they had to follow.”

Palacios, who comes from a politically powerful family, criticized the “obscene amount” Gonzalez spent on his campaign, for which he loaned himself more than $1.6 million.

“If I hired you, you were treated as an employee,” Gonzalez said. “They did a lot of hard work. They were out there in the sun all day. You have to protect them and do things properly. People can’t normally work for free for long. They have to feed their family like everybody else.”

He estimated his camp knocked on more than 223,000 doors.

“The only people that we hired were canvassers, and they earned every dollar that they were paid,” the candidate said. “They were out there talking to people, knocking on doors.”

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The OWLS asked legislators to take a second look at a bill drafted by former Texas Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, in 2011. House Bill 304 aimed to limit the number of people a voter assistant could help in one day. It also called for the voter assistant to provide and document their personal information and show proof of ID at the polls.

A few of the panelists pointed to efforts in Florida and New York that have restricted voter assistants.

Texas Rep. Mike Schofield, R-Katy, who sits on the elections committee, told the OWLS he had introduced a similar bill, HB 3178, during the last legislative session. The committee had voted it out, but it eventually died on the floor.

“I will be trying again,” he said Tuesday.

Despite low conviction figures, Schofield believes voter fraud is a big problem in Texas.

“There is rampant voter fraud in parts of this state,” he said. “What we hear all the time is, ‘well, there haven’t been a lot of convictions; therefore, it’s not happening.’ I can tell you, I live on a street that is sort of the main thoroughfare through my subdivision. People speed on my street day and night. If you went by the number of tickets, you would say it never happens.”

Williamson County GOP Chairman Bill Fairbrother, who also testified, said Wisconsin is a model that is being researched.

“One innovative process for processing absentee voting for those in nursing homes and other residential care facilities comes from Wisconsin, where they swear in special voting deputies — one republican and one democrat per team — and they visit the facilities and conduct voting on behalf of those who have applied for an early ballot,” he said

McClaugherty, an OWLS member, suggested a law that forces voter assistants to be registered voters in the county they are assisting in and provide proof of citizenship.

“We had a lot of people that are illegals that are politiqueras,” she said. “And they go out and they intimidate people.”

“Mine were all American citizens because they had to have a Social Security (number), and you had to pay taxes,” Gonzalez said about his campaign workers.

He suggested designing a course and a certificate for anyone working on campaign trails.

“I just want to assure that these barriers that can be created don’t affect the Hispanic voting population that comes out — our seniors who come out and need to be assisted or handicap veterans that would go out and need assistance,” he said. “I would hate to limit them and their vote.”

Most of the panelists asked for a second look at the punishments currently in place.

“Voting twice in a primary is only a class C misdemeanor, whereas voting twice in a general election is a second-degree felony,” Fairbrother said, adding it was a “glaring discrepancy.”

There was also talk about filing legislation that would place voter fraud under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — commonly referred to as RICO. The RICO Act was used to bring down mafia bosses and provides extended criminal penalties for organized crime.

“People died for our right to vote,” McClaugherty said. “How can democracy work with voter fraud?”

Nlopez@themonitor.com

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