Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas boasted on Twitter last month that his attorney general had launched the state’s largest ever voter fraud investigation — targeting allegations of illegal electioneering in Fort Worth’s Tarrant County. “Texans will crack down on cheating at the ballot box,” Abbott wrote. “We will crush illegal voting.”
Coinciding with weeks of speeches in which Donald Trump implored Americans to distrust the results of this year’s election, news of the investigation was seized upon by outlets like Breitbart, Fox News, and Townhall as evidence of endemic voter fraud. Summing up the implications of the state’s investigation, Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said that fraud-obsessed Republicans “may finally have their white whale.”
Yet, in late October, a different narrative began to emerge about the investigation, which is being led by the state’s Republican attorney general, Ken Paxton. Members of Fort Worth’s Hispanic community charge that Paxton’s investigators are working with a vigilante Republican operative on a campaign aimed less at rooting out fraud and more at causing Texas’s fast-growing Hispanic population to fear voting.
In a civil rights complaint submitted last week to the U.S. Department of Justice, Tarrant County’s United Hispanic Council (UHC) alleges that Paxton’s investigators went into Fort Worth’s Hispanic neighborhoods and deployed interrogation tactics that left elderly voters “in fear about voting and whether they may be accused of committing a crime by casting an absentee ballot.”
In an email to The Intercept, the Department of Justice said it is currently reviewing the United Hispanic Council’s complaint.
Paxton’s office did not directly address the claims of suppression and declined to give The Intercept any further information regarding its operation in Tarrant County. But in recent weeks other players in the investigation have been more forthcoming about its details. On October 17, at an event held by the local chapter of the 9-12 Project, a conservative group founded by Glenn Beck, a Republican political consultant named Aaron Harris told attendees that he was one of the masterminds behind Paxton’s historic fraud investigation. Harris has worked in collaboration with state investigators, he claimed, to uncover a wide-ranging voting scheme in the county’s minority communities.
“There will be years of litigation and prosecution on this,” said Harris, who works for Direct Action Texas, a political advocacy group that earlier this year set up its own voter fraud hotline where callers can attempt to claim a $5,000 bounty for any tip that leads to a felony conviction.
UHC’s civil rights complaint alleges that by appearing to work closely with Harris, the state’s attorney general’s office has blurred the lines between official law enforcement and partisan vigilantism. The complaint coincides with a wave of incidents in which Republican-connected groups, inspired by Donald Trump, have taken powers of election law enforcement into their own hands. Last week, Democrats sued the Republican parties in four states, alleging that Trump and his allies are pushing a “coordinated campaign of vigilante voter intimidation” at polling sites. Last Friday, a federal court ordered election officials in North Carolina to immediately stop granting the requests of private voter challengers who, with the help of local boards of elections, were purging voters off the roles with little evidence of ineligibility.
“Using unofficial, non-trained private officials to conduct ballot security operations or challenging people’s right to vote is very dangerous and it can lead to intimidation, disruption, and discrimination,” said Jonathan Brater, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program. “This is something we’re particularly worried about this year.”
In its complaint to the Justice Department, UHC alleges that Texas, in conjunction with Harris, is seeking to criminalize get-out-the-vote workers’ attempts to help elderly voters with their mail-in ballots. “This assistance is particularly critical for Spanish-speaking seniors who do not understand the multi-step process to request and return absentee mail ballots,” the complaint states. “Assistance for seniors is allowed.”
Paxton’s operation in Tarrant County is not the first time the Texas attorney general’s office, which has vigorously championed the state’s strict voter ID law, has been accused of using its position to impede voting among the state’s rapidly growing minority populations. Since 2012, the office has prosecuted 15 cases of voter fraud, most involving mail-in ballots. Critics have pointed out that the majority of these have focused on the state’s Hispanic population, which generally votes for Democratic candidates.
Harris emphasizes that his investigators conducted their interviews last year, before Paxton began his probe, and says that it is primarily Democrats who have supported his campaign against voter fraud. He claims that the leaders of the illegal voting operation — not him — are the ones who have targeted the area’s minority communities. As evidence, Harris boasted that the elected officials he has accused of stealing their seats have not yet sued him for defamation. “I want them to — I beg them to — sue me,” Harris told The Intercept in an interview. “Let’s do it. I’m going to beat their ass.”
At last month’s 9-12 meeting, Harris seemed confident that his findings would result in serious consequences for those participating in illegal voting practices. Addressing anyone in the crowd involved in the alleged crimes, Harris made a curious offer: Give him a helpful tip to advance his investigation, and he would go to bat for you with his friends in state law enforcement.
“There’s no greater ally to have when negotiating with the attorney general right now than me,” Harris said. “The guys with the badges are coming.”