Texas Watchdog examines voter fraud in South Texas: Part 1

Charged with illegal vote harvesting, a political worker explains how voter fraud works

May 11, 2010
By Steve Miller, Texas Watchdog

ALICE, Texas – Zaida Bueno, accused of illegal vote harvesting in the 2008 primary in Jim Wells County, is up-front about her deeds. Yes, she helped coach votes and collect mail-in ballots for a number of local elected officials over the past eight years.

“County, the whole county and the whole courthouse – city council, school board, any election you name, I’ve done,” Bueno says.

She even worked for Jim Wells County District Attorney Armando G. Barrera in 2008, handling ballots for the campaign.

“I put them in my bag, I want to make sure nobody sees, you know, you’re not supposed to do [this],” Bueno says. Then, she drops them off in the mail and leaves the post office quickly.

Trouble is, Bueno’s line of work corrupts the vote and is against the law.

But Bueno says she didn’t know that. After all, it was the candidates themselves who were giving her the instructions, she said.

“I would not have done it if I thought it was illegal,” she said during a recent interview in her home in Alice.

Bueno, 55, was charged in February with four counts of illegally possessing mail-in ballots. Her case, along with charges against accused vote-harvesters Cynthia Lopez, 46, and, Norma Lopez, 50, is being heard in the Live Oak County courtroom of County Judge Jim Huff.

The charges, being pursued by the state Attorney General’s office, are misdemeanors.

Mail-in voter fraud has prompted changes in election law, caused investigators from the AG’s office to comb South Texas and landed a number of people in court. Lawmakers have been urged to bolster the laws governing mail-in voting, but haven’t done so since 2003.

Most charges come out of South Texas, where generations of politiqueros, or political workers, such as Bueno have worked at getting out the vote for particular candidates.

In its simplest form, assisting others to vote, particularly the elderly and disabled, is not a crime. But state law requires an assistant to co-sign the ballot envelope, and prohibits people from assisting more than one voter.

An assistant isn’t allowed to possess the voters’ ballots in most situations – the law is designed so that the voter, not a political worker, sees to it that the ballot is mailed. Bueno was charged with violating this rule.

Bueno lives in a small wood-frame house with her children, three sons and two daughters, ages 22 to 38. The house is a rental, $569 a month, about a 15-minute walk from downtown Alice.

Bueno lives on Social Security benefits of $695 per month plus $173 a month in food stamps, court documents show.

If it’s not a comfortable living, it’s cozy and familial, and on a recent Friday afternoon, cars came and went and the place buzzed of activity.

To earn extra money each spring, Bueno followed a blueprint laid out by generations of politiqueros in South Texas. It is a living she has renounced given her legal trouble. Candidates begin to announce the fall before a March primary, and also begin choosing a team to help harvest votes. The workers are often listed on campaign finance reports as canvassers, and sometimes as employees.

After Bueno found several candidates up and down the ballot to work for, the rush was on for the blank mail-in ballot applications, which the elections administrator is legally obligated to provide to anyone in whatever quantity they desire. “They know the money is there, and the more cards (you) take, the more money you get,” Bueno said. She said the going rate is $150 for the successful return of 50 mail-in ballot applications.

Politiqueras might request up to 300 applications each, she said, then the candidates pay for the stamps, and the applications are mailed to the voters. That’s where Bueno’s willingness to pound the pavement, and sweet-talk some voters, came in, as Bueno made her rounds to the voters’ homes.

As part of her paid work, “I have to push [the candidates], you’ve got to push their name,” she said. “I can’t tell them who to vote for. I will go to you, and you don’t know how to write or read,” she said. So Bueno tells the voter who she’s helping.

Do the voters ask for suggestions?

“Yes, they do, but I vote for the one I want, the one I am helping,” Bueno said. “But I am not going to write your ballot, I want you to tell me which one you want. … You tell me, ‘I don’t know that lady, but I know (the other candidate), he has been in Alice for a long time, and I say ‘you are sure that’s right.’ ” They say ‘yes,’ I put [the ballot] in the envelope, and nobody knows but me, you.”