The Winnebago Vote
In a place called Rainbow’s End, amid towering East Texas pines and hulking Winnebagos, sits an unremarkable, gray-brick building that is home to the biggest and most influential voting bloc in Polk County. No one actually lives at 100 Rainbow Drive, but the building hosts 12,000 registered voters.
The 10,000-square-foot building houses a massive mail-forwarding service, the largest in the nation. The service is geared toward recreational vehicle enthusiasts and allows them to receive mail-and vote by mail in Polk County elections-from wherever they happen to be. Known as the Escapees, the mostly white-haired RV owners have-in theory at least-exchanged fixed abodes for a life zipping across America in mobile mansions. These 12,000 overwhelmingly Republican voters-some of whom have never even set foot in the area-have helped erode what was once a stronghold of yellow dog Democrats deep in the Piney Woods of Texas. To some, the operation allows the Escapees to enjoy life on the open road. To critics, it is voter fraud on a grand scale.
The ballot-mailing service is run by Escapees Inc., a family owned business that operates eight RV parks around the country, including its headquarters at Rainbow’s End RV Park outside Livingston, about 80 miles northeast of Houston. This 140-acre, deluxe RV park boasts a swimming pool, more than 150 RV lots, a clubhouse, library, even an adult day-care center. Only a couple hundred souls live here. Some Escapees make annual pilgrimages; others have never so much as peeled out in East Texas. They hail from Kansas, California, wherever, yet they’re all considered Livingston “locals” who vote in Polk County elections by mail ballots forwarded to them from the warehouse at 100 Rainbow.
The state of Texas, with its notorious residency requirements, recognizes the Escapees as Polk County residents even though many have never been here. In fact, they need only enter Texas once-to get driver’s licenses-to become residents.
Some Escapees aren’t even full-time RVers. They own homes elsewhere, spend seasons in other states (Arizona and California are popular), and though technically Texas residents, probably couldn’t tell a bluebonnet from a bluebird. What Escapees have escaped from is a state income tax, which is levied in 43 states, but not in Texas.
The Escapees account for more than 30 percent of registered voters in Polk County, giving them significant sway over who gets elected to county and even state legislative offices.
The cache of mail order voters has long irked some local Democrats, who accuse the group of distorting East Texas politics. They filed an ultimately unsuccessful legal challenge in 2000 to strip the Escapees from the Polk County voting rolls. With Texas Republicans talking tough about cracking down on voter fraud, some Democrats say the Escapees operation warrants new attention and even an investigation.
Angie Carr is the executive director of Escapees Inc. (Motto: “Adventure Awaits. It’s Time to Escape.”). A prim woman with long, reddish hair who married into this third-generation business, Carr leads me on a tour of the mail warehouse. This is, in essence, where the 12,000 voters “live.” Hobbled on crutches from an injury she sustained on a recent RV road trip, Carr proudly shows off the highly efficient operation.
Each morning at 9 a.m., an 18-wheeler postal truck bypasses the Livingston post office to deliver mail directly to the Escapees, who have their own zip code. In the back room, a sophisticated machine sorts the mail (2 million pieces every year). Meanwhile, 40 employees are busy answering phones, filing mail, and readying packages to be forwarded all over the world. Thousands of folders-one for each Escapee account-fill three separate rooms. Each folder represents a unique address, with a Rainbow Drive street address that doesn’t exist and personal mailbox number. That address appears next to the voter’s name on the voter rolls and on the Texas driver’s licenses of residents.
None of these addresses actually exists-there are no buildings to be found. Yet these “paper” addresses allow Escapees to register and vote by mail in Polk County, whether they’re in East Texas or touring through Maine.
The mailroom is the hub of the Escapees’ voting system, the intermediary for registration applications and ballots moving between government and voter.
State law mandates-with some exceptions-that an absentee ballot must be sent out of county. For this reason, Carr maintains a post office box in Shepherd, a small town 15 miles south in neighboring San Jacinto County. The box’s sole purpose is to receive ballots mailed by the county clerk a few miles up the road from Rainbow’s End. An Escapees employee periodically picks up the ballots in Shepherd and drives them back to the mailroom, where they are processed and mailed to Escapees around the world.
It’s an impressive, if jury-rigged, operation, and its impact may be widening. With a presidential election less than two months away, the flow of applications for mail ballots has picked up dramatically-some 200 to 300 each day, according to the county clerk’s office.
Carr is proud of the operation her family has built. “We started out with a file cabinet,” she says of the mail service’s inception in 1985. How did her business come to this strange state of affairs? “I assume, like everything else in our business, it arose from a need,” Carr says.
Later, Carr’s mother-in-law and Escapees CEO Cathie Carr tells me: “We’re not just paper. We are real people.”
To Sharon and Dennis Teal, Livingston Democrats, the idea that the Escapees are legitimate Polk County residents and voters defies common sense. “I don’t know what your idea of a permanent resident is, but it’s not someone who visits once every nine years,” Dennis Teal says over a dinner of fried catfish at a Livingston restaurant. “They have no vested interest in this community other than to use it to avoid paying a state income tax.”
Buck Wood, an Austin election-law attorney who mainly represents Democrats, estimates-based on interviews he and his staff did with about 100 Escapees-that roughly half the members have never been to Rainbow’s End. “That is deadly,” he says. “You cannot register [to vote] in a place you’ve never been.” Only about 10 percent, he contends, are even full-time RVers, people so committed to the RV lifestyle that they no longer rent or own a home. (A cross-check of Polk County voter rolls and out-of-state property records confirms that at least several Escapees members own homes or RV lots in other states.)
Cathie Carr, who calls Sharon Teal “vicious” and “irritating,” insists that most Escapees are plugged into Polk County, serving on juries, volunteering in the community, and attending church services. “These people are the very people you would want in your community,” Carr says. “Just because they choose to travel the majority of their time is no reason to shun them or exclude them from voting.” Individuals who have never been to Polk County are “very rare,” she says.
In 2000, attorney Wood represented several local Democrats in an unsuccessful challenge to the Escapees’ residency status. The case, which bounced among three courts, was carefully tracked by both parties. In that election, control of the Texas Senate-where Republicans held a one-vote majority-had come down to a single, nasty East Texas contest between Republican Todd Staples (now agriculture commissioner) and Democrat David Fisher. Staples accused Fisher and the Democratic Party of orchestrating the lawsuit to bump reliable Republicans out of the election. In the end, a three-judge panel of the federal Fifth Circuit shot down the residency challenge and allowed the Escapees to vote. Staples won the election by a landslide, and the RVers’ votes were not decisive.
After the election, Wood filed another suit contesting the results of a county commissioner’s race in which Democrat-turned-Republican Bob Willis bested incumbent Democrat B.E. “Slim” Speights by almost 2,800 votes. In that race, the Escapees votes proved critical, favoring Willis 4-1. Willis had previously served as the tax assessor-collector-an office that includes voter registration duties-and had rallied to the Escapees’ defense. Wood and Speights sought to overturn the election results by proving that the Escapees were not legitimate residents of Polk County.
In part, the case hinged on the definition of residence. The election code refers to residence as a “fixed place of habitation to which one intends to return after any temporary absence.” In depositions Wood collected, some voters testified they had never been to Rainbow’s End, and that they owned homes in other states and had no clear intentions of ever living in Polk County. But a 2-1 majority of a state appeals court sided with Willis, ruling that Wood had failed to show the individual circumstances and intentions of the more than 5,000 absentee voters. The majority also noted that county officials had allowed Escapees to register and vote at the fictitious Rainbow Drive addresses for years.
Wood, on the other hand, dwells on the cases he lost. He quotes a bit of election lawyer wisdom: “If you’re gonna steal an election, steal it big … You can contest an election where there are 10 illegal votes or 20 or 50, but once it gets much bigger than that, it’s impossible.”
At the 4 p.m. social hour in the comfy Rainbow’s End clubhouse, partisan politics is the last thing on anyone’s mind. About 20 RVers have gathered to tell bad RV jokes (Have you heard the one about the guy who thought he had won a Winnebago from one of those peel-off tab contests?-turns out he had “won a bagel”) and discuss movies (“All I remember about Braveheart is Mel Gibson’s bare tush”). As it turns out, most of the attendees are part of the small percentage of Escapees who actually live at Rainbow’s End. Politicians campaign for their support, and they vote at a real polling place. They are a proud, friendly group. Dottie Piercy, a young-looking 83-year-old with bright blue eyes, explains the appeal of Rainbow’s End. “I live here as a widow,” she says. “I feel safe. I have friends here, and the ones who don’t [live here] come through and see me.” A woman wearing a jaunty hat walks into the room carrying an Obama-Biden sign. A man wearing a U.S. Navy cap boos lustily. Everyone laughs. This is a real community, real politics, but what about the rest of those 12,000 voters who aren’t here?The Teals view the Escapees as interlopers who have artificially shifted the area’s political balance toward the GOP.
There is evidence to support this assertion. The 12,000 registered Escapees-up from 9,000 eight years ago-account for 30 percent of the county’s registered voters, certainly enough to tilt the balance in close races. Roughly two-thirds of them vote Republican, often straight-ticket. In 2004, Republican John Otto beat the Democratic incumbent, three-term state Rep. Dan Ellis of Livingston, by a little more than 1,400 votes in Polk County. If you took the Escapees out of the equation, Ellis would have won the county by more than 500 votes. Otto would have been elected anyway because of his advantage elsewhere in the district, but the Teals say the Escapees machine poses real hurdles for Democratic candidates.
Arlan Foster, a long-shot Democratic candidate to unseat Otto and president of the Correctional Employees Union, AFSCME Council 7, sees the problem from a candidate’s perspective.
“It’s hard to take a pulse on a voter that lives out of state and you can’t communicate with,” Foster says. “From my standpoint, I believe the job description is in the job title-state representative means just that-you represent the people. How can I represent someone in Illinois who’s never been to Texas? And what would I be doing for that person?”
The Escapees effect is even more measurable at the local level. Since Reconstruction, no Republican had held a local office until Willis won a seat on the county commissioner’s court in 2000. Since 2002, six other local Democratic officials have switched to run as Republicans.
“What Democratic officials we have here are scared to death of this thing,” Dennis Teal says. “The Democrats are frustrated because they know the system is rigged.”
That may be so, but other elected Democrats in town seem to have made peace with the Escapees, if only out of fear, perhaps, of provoking them.
“You learn to do your job and do it well as you can,” says Marion “Bid” Smith, the Democratic tax assessor-collector, whose duties include registering voters. “You make sure to provide services in their favor.”
Benny Fogleman, the county Republican chairman, is more than happy with the Teals’ assault on the Escapees. “Sharon’s been very good for the Republican Party,” he says. “I could have never brought the party to where we are without her.”
Among some Democrats, though, the Escapees represent the one type of “voter fraud” that Texas Republicans are willing to tolerate.
Since 2005, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has spent millions criminally prosecuting Democratic Party activists, almost all minorities, for infractions such as not including their signatures and addresses on the backs of ballots they mailed for senior citizens (see “Vote by Mail, Go to Jail,” April 18, 2008).
In a lawsuit against the state of Texas that was settled in May, Gerry Hebert, an attorney with the Campaign Legal Center, represented several of the Democratic activists whom Abbott had prosecuted. One of the provisions the state had used against the activists made it a crime to possess the mail ballot of another voter. Another stipulated that the ballot envelopes had to include the helper’s signature.
The Escapees’ mail-forwarding service involves the possession of thousands of ballots. The envelopes aren’t signed.
“It just struck me as odd that you would have the AG taking a somewhat inconsistent approaches to two different groups of people,” Hebert says. The case was settled before Hebert could raise the issue in a trial. But he contends that Republican attorneys general have a track record of protecting the Escapees.
Hebert cites a letter from Andy Taylor, then an assistant attorney general, to Cathie Carr. Taylor represented the state of Texas in the 2000 litigation. In the November 2000 letter, Taylor thanks Carr for a “monogrammed polo shirt and honorary membership into the Escapees,” and confesses that he has “felt sorry for you and your fellow RVers during this controversy-you have been treated like pawns in a political chess game.”
Last year, Republicans in the Texas Legislature came within one vote of passing legislation that would have required voters to present picture identification at the polls, a measure that Democrats contend would present unwarranted hurdles for low-income and minority voters. The measure is likely to be taken up again next year.
Wood compares the Escapees to the Chicken Ranch, a brothel near La Grange that operated in the open for nearly 70 years. “It was illegal, but everyone said, ‘so what.’ No one did anything about it. The situation with the Escapees in Polk County is the same thing … If the Democrats had an operation like that, the attorney general would be down there tomorrow, and everybody would be indicted.”
Investigative reporting for this article was supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Institute.