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PATRICIA MOORE sive contest that U.S. Rep. Jim Chapman won with a hefty early vote. The Houston experience, however, seems destined to become a watershed event. It not only dismantled a fledgling Hispanic political machine, but it demonstrated how wide open the process is for manipulation. Polling Place? At the height of the Houston primary season, 400 mailballot applications a day were spewing off the fax machines at the Harris County Clerk’s office. Most of the forms were typed or computer-generated and they came. from the Whitmire and Green campaign. It was the first indication of just how sick the mail effort had become and it caught county officials completely off guard. After walking into the office one Monday morning and finding their fax room overflowing with applications for ballots, Harris County Clerk Anita. Rodeheaver threatened to disconnect the machine and at least one elec tions clerk was heard to grouse: “There’s a fine line between being helpful to voters and fraud.” Earlier this month, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office investigated allegations of mail ballot fraud after Ken Yarborough, a Democratic candidate for state representative in.District 138, in north Houston, faxed requests for mail ballots for four dead people. While the investigation hasn’t resulted in any charges as of yet, Yarborough says it was an honest mistake and pooh-poohs any appearance of impropriety. “For four people to have died between the time we sent in their application and the time. the county clerk sent their ballots back to them is not unusual,” he said. “Four out of 1,000 is not bad when you consider we’re dealing with people 65 and older.” Whitmire campaign workers who coordinated the Acres Homes mail ballot drive admit that they sealed, stamped and mailed hundreds of ballots a violation of the state election code but a difficult one to prove. They also assisted scores of voters like Betty Livingston, yet none of these workers signed their names on the ballot carrier envelopes as required by state law. When questioned about their methods, political operatives simply pleaded ignorance. “There’s no law that says there’s anything wrong with that,” said Earnestine Gee, a political activist who organized Whitmire’s Acres Homes mail vote. While there’s no evidence that any ballots in Houston’s state senate or congressional race were mishandled, state election officials say this was an environment ripe for tampering. Harrison, in the Secretary of State’s office, says the fraud most commonly occurs when a “helper” marks the ballot for the voter, or when a volunteer mails after leaving the house. “Sometimes they’ll take it outside and finish marking the lower-ballot races, or if it’s not marked how the want it, they will dispose of it,” Harrison says. “I wish the Legislature would just abolish this.” The mail-ballot technique has also earned a nickname as “lock box” voting, referring to cases where numerous ballots have been sent to a single address presumably somebody’s campaign headquarters or a post office box and then voted en masse. State Rep. Ernestine Glossbrenner, a sponsor of the 1987 bill that changed absentee voting to no-excuses early voting, says she too is concerned about the growing abuse of the mail voting. But any legislation action that would restrict ballotaccess must be treated gingerly, she says. “What they’re doing, if it’s not illegal, is certainly walking on the edge,” Glossbrener says. “If it becomes such a problem that it begins to color elections then I would think we’d finally have to do away with the mail ballot. Until then though, I think we need to weigh the advantage of letting the elderly and the handicapped have their ballots mailed to them against the evil of the misuse of the same system.” Another factor that made the Houston elections unique was the racial tension that heightened the mail-vote turnout. Martinez, who served on the state House Redistricting Committee, played a crucial part in designing the 15th Senate seat, in hopes of providing the Houston area another Hispanic state legislator. The 29th Congressional. District, meanwhile, was gerrymandered for the same purpose after the 1990 census showed Houston’s Hispanic population was growing at an explosive rate. After a rowdy primary, the races were distilled into two bitter runoff contests that pitted two well-financed Anglo candidates against two viable Hispanics. “There aren’t many situations like that,” says Dan McClung, the Houston political consultant who masterminded the mail campaign for Green and Whitmire. “It was truly a 50-50 race. It was a do or die battle.” Desperate circumstances spawned desperate measures. Reyes and Martinez set out through fiery rhetoric to inspire a dormant Latino community unity rallies and weekly strategy session at Los Molcajetes, an Hispanic eatery THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7