AUSTIN (KXAN) – When the vote counting ended in the Gregg County Democratic Primary in 2018, Shannon Brown defeated Kasha Williams by five votes. Brown, the then-mayor of Easton, would eventually assume a position of power representing Precinct 4 on the county commission.

Almost as soon as the celebration ended, people watching what happened in that race were calling for an investigation.

“Nine percent of the ballots cast statewide were absentee, but in Gregg County — in this race —32%,” state senator Brian Hughes said in 2018. That meant of the 2,089 votes cast in that county, 787 voters never showed up to the polls. Instead, those 787 people voted using a mail-in ballot.

The disparity was something Hughes believed needed a criminal investigation and the attorney general’s office was called in to lead it.  

The Texas legislature intended mail-in ballot voting to help the disabled or people over the age of 65 to vote without waiting in lines at polling places.

But, in Gregg County, the grand jury found there was enough probable cause to believe Commissioner Brown and three others used mail-in ballots in what the Texas Attorney General’s Office calls “an organized vote harvesting scheme” to win the 2018 Democratic Primary.

On Sept. 23, two years after the primary, Brown and three others were indicted by the county grand jury. The four face a total of 134 felony charges and penalties that range from six months to 99 years in a Texas prison.

This case is one example of the more than 100 people who have been charged with a voter fraud crime in the past 16 years in Texas. Complaints are rare, convictions rarer still and even then they rarely mean jail time.

The timing of the indictment

“The investigation takes time; you have to interview a lot of people. You want to make sure that you know when you’re prosecuting someone, you want to make sure that they’ve actually done something wrong,” Texas Attorney Ken Paxton told KXAN in an interview in September.

Paxton said his office had three attorneys handling voter fraud prosecutions and investigators who aren’t committed to handling “just one case” at a time, which Paxton said helped explain the time it took to finish the investigation into the Gregg County election. Those Gregg County indictments came at a time where voter fraud is the source of concern for many people across the country.

Paxton dismissed the assertion that the timing of the Gregg County indictments was to help sway public opinion as to whether large-scale voter fraud existed and could risk swaying elections.

Just two weeks later, Paxton’s office announced another large fraud arrest centered on mail-in ballots. Denton County law enforcement arrested Zul Mirza Mohamed on 109 felony counts of mail ballot application fraud and unlawful possession of an official mail ballot.

Mohamed is running for mayor of Carrollton and is on the November ballot.

On Oct. 8, 2020 the Texas Attorney General’s Office announced the arrest of Carrollton, TX mayoral candidate, Zul Mohamed, on 84 counts of mail ballot application fraud. (Photo Credit/Denton County Sheriff’s Office)

Investigators said Mohamed opened a post office box under the name of a nursing home, then “forged at least 84 voter registration applications” and sent those ballots to that post office box. The sheriff’s office put the post office under surveillance and waited on the person who had access to that box to retrieve the ballots.

“We had an undercover police officer hand him (Mohamed) the box in his vehicle. At that point, surveillance teams followed him to a home in Carrollton,” Denton County Sheriff Tracy Murphree said.

That house is where Mohamed lives, the sheriff’s office says.

“At the time of arrest, Mohamed was in the process of stuffing envelopes with additional mail ballot applications,” when investigators showed up to his home to arrest him, according to the attorney general’s office.

Mohamed’s attorney Shayan Elahi told KXAN in Dallas that his client was the victim of a political hit.

“My client is running for mayor of Carrollton and he has some enemies in that city with some connections and I think he definitely have fallen victim of some framing here,” Elahi said.  

839 voter fraud complaints in Texas

Since 2004, attorney general’s office records show 150 people were charged with a voter fraud crime. Of the 150 people charged, 138 people were convicted by either pleading guilty or taking their cases to a courtroom.

The vast majority of cases were settled through plea agreements with the attorney general.

The crimes range from felons casting votes to people “voting” from the grave. But, our analysis of prosecution records obtained from the Texas Attorney General’s Office under the open records act shows most people who commit voter fraud will never spend a day in jail.

“There’s not usually much punishment for it,” Paxton acknowledged in a September interview with KXAN. “But, I think the good thing about finding it, and doing a thorough job of investigation and prosecution is at least you send the message to people that if you’re going to do this, there is some risk that you’re going to end up in prison for committing voter fraud.”

Paxton’s own records show his prosecutors often agreed to plea agreements with those convicted.

Rosa Maria Ortega was convicted of voter fraud in 2017 and a jury sentenced her to eight years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. (Photo Credit/Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office)

Between 2004 and 2020, 24 of the 138 people convicted of voter fraud served at least one day in jail. The other 114 defendants walked away with pre-trial diversion deals or probation. The shortest jail sentence was handed down to a man and woman in Cameron County in 2015.

Both were convicted of mail ballot fraud and vote harvesting in the 2012 primary election runoff and were sentenced to three days in the county jail.

The longest jail sentence was eight years for a Dallas woman following a trial in 2017. A jury convicted Rosa Maria Ortega of illegally voting as a non-citizen in the 2012 general election and again in the 2014 primary. One of the people she voted for was Ken Paxton for attorney general.

Paxton’s office is ultimately who prosecuted Ortega.

Ortega’s attorney at the time, Clark Birdsall, told the Washington Post following the conviction that Ortega made a mistake in marking her voter registrations as a “citizen.”

“She doesn’t know. She’s got this [green] card that says ‘resident’ on it, so she doesn’t mark that she’s not a citizen,” Birdsall told the Post at the time. “She had no ulterior motive beyond what she thought, mistakenly, was her civic duty.”

The jury found Ortega guilty of two counts of voter fraud and ordered her to pay a $5,000 fine, along with serving eight years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Since 2004, the attorney general’s office received 839 voter fraud complaints but only prosecuted 150 people, according to records released under the open records act. The complaints come into the attorney general’s office through citizen complaints, law enforcement and from the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.  

One person decides what gets through

The largest number of requests for voter fraud investigations made to the attorney general’s office came from the secretary of state’s office. Since August 2002, the SOS has referred 548 cases to the attorney general for investigation.

The latest referral happened in September 2020 when a complaint of unlawfully obstructing a poll watcher was filed related to the 2020 Travis County Primary.

Keith Ingram is the Elections Director for the Texas Secretary of State’s Office. Ingram is the one person inside the office who “personally” reviews each fraud complaint and decides whether it’s forwarded to the attorney general for investigation. (KXAN Photo/Wes Rapaport)

Half of the secretary of state referrals happened in 2012 when 254 referrals went to the attorney general alleging dead voters cast votes in 2012 municipal and primary elections across Texas.

None of the attorney general prosecutions for 2012 show a single charge of impersonating a deceased voter. The only prosecutions showing impersonation of a deceased voter happened in Harris County in the 2008 primary election and again in the 2016 Democratic Primary election in Starr and Hidalgo Counties.

The secretary of state’s spokesman did not provide annual totals of complaints filed with the office for the past several years. The spokesman did say 238 election complaints were filed between Oct. 5, 2019 and Oct. 5, 2020.

People can report voter fraud to the Texas Secretary of State, Texas Attorney General’s Office or Department of Justice. They’ll need to provide their name and contact information, as well as specific details about what they witnessed.

When a complaint is filed with the office, one person determines what gets passed along to the attorney general for investigation. The rest of the complaints are set aside.

“Once election complaints reach our office, Keith Ingram, our Director of Elections, personally evaluates the complaints,” spokesman Stephen Chang wrote to KXAN. We requested an interview with Ingram and Secretary Ruth Hughs, but Chang denied the requests saying both were busy with the elections.

As the only person to decide what gets through, Ingram holds a lot of power. The standard Ingram is supposed to use in making his determinations lies in the Texas Election Code. The threshold for determining whether a complaint is forwarded for investigation is met once Ingram finds “reasonable cause to suspect that the alleged criminal conduct occurred,” according to Sec. 31.006 of the Elections Code.

Stealing an election ‘not going to happen’

The only case of voter fraud we found in Central Texas happened in 2016 when Shelley Brewer decided to vote in both the Democrat and Republican primaries. Brewer said she didn’t want Charles Kimbrough to win the Democrat nomination for Caldwell County’s district judge seat.

Kimbrough was the former district attorney in Caldwell County from 1991 to 2003.

“I didn’t want that son of a b—- in there,” Brewer told KXAN as for the reason she decided to vote twice. The district attorney prosecuted Brewer on a misdemeanor charge where she pleaded guilty and paid a $500 fine. Brewer, in a phone call with KXAN, said she knew what she was doing was illegal at the time.

In 2017, the legislature made the offense a felony.

Brewer’s stunt didn’t make any difference in the race. Kimbrough still lost by 161 votes.

“The amount of people it would take to really steal an election would be so large and so expensive and so concerted because we have such good safeguards in there: voter registration, the electronic voting machines, dedicated professionals,” said Dr. Brian Smith, a political science professor at St. Edwards University in Austin.

Aside from the case in Gregg County where five votes decided that race, Smith said elections in Texas are typically not close. The closest U.S. Senate race in Texas in 40 years happened in 2018 when Sen. Ted Cruz beat Beto O’Rourke by 220,000 votes.

“For Beto O’Rourke to steal that race, he would have had to come up with more than 200,000 votes in Texas. So, we’re talking about a lot of votes there to actually swing an election. Fraud is rare and the amount of votes to swing an election tends to be very, very high,” Smith told KXAN.

Smith pointed to the number of ballots cast in Texas since the 2004 races — which he estimates could be in the tens of millions — where the first prosecution happened, according to records provided by the attorney general’s office.

“There’s not a lot of complaints compared to all the ballots cast, so it’s not like every election in every precinct has a certain number of fraudulent ballot complaints,” Smith said.

“What we see is not a lot of complaints followed up by not a lot of convictions,” Smith told KXAN. “The probability of your stolen vote changing an election is so infinitesimal that it’s not going to happen.”

Despite only 24 out of 138 prosecutions ending in jail sentences, Smith believes the penalties for committing voter fraud in Texas are strong enough to deter most people from committing the crime.

“The penalties are strong enough because if they were weaker, more people would do it. Most people realize that the benefits of voting twice or casting a fraudulent ballot don’t outweigh those costs. It’s simply easier to get registered, cast your vote honestly, make an informed choice, go out and vote than it is to sneak one past the goalie,” Smith said.