Friday, December 9, 2016
If civil commitment is not prison, then why were the voting ballots of Littlefield TX "patients" thrown away?
Interestingly, same article, same author, different headline. Lets face it, most of us understand "civil commitment" is just a euphemism for indefinite detention Abu Ghraib style.
Houston Chronicle | Dec. 6, 2016
Officials leave sex offenders' election ballots uncounted
Sex offenders at treatment center sue for alleged rights violations
Now, the San Antonio Express News's headline:
Prisoners’ ballots tossed out
By Mike Ward, Austin Bureau December 8, 2016
Prisoners’ ballots tossed out
By Mike Ward, Austin Bureau, December 8, 2016
AUSTIN - Like millions of Americans who wanted to have their say, more than 100 men inside a West Texas treatment center for sexually violent predators registered to vote in last month's presidential election.
Local election officials, however, refused to count their ballots, a decision that attorneys say likely violates federal and state laws.
The tossed-out votes now are the subject of a growing legal fight in the small town that once begged to get the treatment center for the jobs and the multimillion-dollar payroll that it brought, but now appears to be having second thoughts about the more than 200 convicted sex offenders that came with it.
"They didn't want us going out into their community, so they made us vote by mail, and now they're denying us the right to vote at all," said Clarence Brown, 54, one of the men in the Billy Clayton Center whose ballots were rejected. "This place isn't supposed to be a prison, but this run-down, bigoted little town is trying to make it one so we can't exercise our constitutional right to vote. Even if they don't like us, what they have done is not legal."
Brown said he and 65 other men at the center have filed a challenge to the decision to reject their ballots by Early Voting Ballot Board Judge Steve Busby. They said they plan to ask the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the case as a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which makes it a federal crime to prevent a qualified voter from casting a ballot.
Officials with the Texas Civil Commitment Office that operates the sex offender program and top elections officials at the Texas Secretary of State Office acknowledged the problem but said there is little they can do.
Lamb County elections officials contend it was not their decision and referred questions to Busby. He did not return repeated phone calls.
Documents obtained by the Chronicle show the state laws that Busby cited in rejecting the ballots were the same ones state officials used to allow the men to vote by mail: They were disabled, they were confined and could not get to a polling place to vote and that they had fully discharged their prison sentences.
"It sounds like a pretty clear violation," said Buck Wood, an Austin lawyer and expert on Texas elections law. "If they completed their sentences, they should have been allowed to vote."
'There was grumbling'
Under Texas law, felons who have completed their prison sentences are entitled to vote.
State files show the fight began earlier this year when Brown and as many as a dozen other men at the Clayton Center registered to vote in the March primaries. County officials advised them to vote by mail, records show, but none were counted.
"There was grumbling, and I asked the county how they could vote, to resolve this in the future," said Marsha McLane, executive director of the Texas Civil Commitment Office. "There were three options: They could either go a polling place on Election Day or they could bring a polling place to the center to let them vote there or they could do it by absentee ballot."
Officials confirmed that before all the men in the state's civil-commitment program were moved to Littlefield in September 2015, many had voted in Houston, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and other locations where they were housed in jails and halfway houses.
Because many of the men at the Littlefield facility did not have proper identification cards to cast ballots in person, the civil commitment agency transported the prospective voters - about 50 of them - to a Texas Department of Public Safety office in Lubbock to get state-approved ID cards. Each man paid the $21 cost for the cards, McLane said.
Internal state emails show Lamb County officials in May nixed in-person voting as an option and again urged absentee ballots to avoid problems with local residents, including the possibility of violence.
"I will assure you that if the ballot by mail does not work, I will not intentionally violate anyone's constitutional right to vote," County Judge Mike DeLoach wrote in a May 24 email to McLane. "I am gravely concerned if you bring your residents into town to vote, it is going to cause problems - in fact, it is not a 'maybe' or a possibility' - it is going to My concern is not only for the public and their safety, but also for your facility/staff and your residents' safety; neither the county nor the city maintain resources to provide security at polling places."
DeLoach also noted that while 30 men wanted to vote at the time, up to 300 eventually may want to vote in the future, a number that could impact local election races.
As of Monday, the center housed about 240 men.
DeLoach did not return calls requesting comment.
'Disabled' option OK'd
By late May, DeLoach said he had asked County Attorney Scott Say to request a legal ruling from Attorney General Ken Paxton on whether the men could vote absentee by claiming the "disabled" exemption. The Secretary of State's Office soon signed off on the mail ballots for the men.
"It can reasonably be argued that a person who has been clinically assessed ... to the point where the individual civilly committed and is unable to leave the commitment facility without being accompanied is disabled for purposes of voting by mail," Caroline Geppert, a staff attorney in the Elections Division, wrote in a May 31 email to the civil commitment agency. "Such an individual may credibly claim to have a sickness or condition that prevents the person from voting in person without the need for personal assistance."
Alicia Pierce, a spokesperson for Secretary of State Carlos Cascos, confirmed that election officials had approved mail ballots for the men. In a message to the agency, DeLoach said that was good enough to resolve the issue for county officials.
Then, Nov. 17, Brown and 65 other men received notice that the ballot each had mailed was rejected by the Early Voting Ballot Board and was not counted.
Three state laws were listed: Those covering disability, confinement in jail and the qualifications to be a voter.
Privately, several local and state officials said they disagree with the decision, noting that Early Ballot Voting Boards in most counties only compare signatures on mail ballots to validate their authenticity, as well as other record-keeping details, and do not disqualify ballots for other reasons.
The state handbook for those boards confirms that.
Ten days after the election and a day after Busby officially rejected the ballots, Say, who serves as both the district and county attorney in the community of 6,300 residents, asked the attorney general to determine whether the men who voted can claim a "disability," a ruling that could block future voting if that option is nixed.
If that happens, McLane said she plans to transport eligible voters from the center to a local polling place despite the objection of local officials. "The law appears to be clear. I don't want to get sued," she said.
While advocates insist Texas law makes it a misdemeanor for anyone who "influences or attempts to influence a voter not to vote or to vote in a particular manner," state election officials said they do not believe that law covers the Littlefield situation.
"It seems to be applicable to bribery or coercing someone to vote or not to vote, not specifically relayed to counting the vote," Pierce said.
"Taking a person's ballot and throwing it out is coercion," he said.
Bill Marshall, a Houston attorney who represents Brown and other men at the treatment center, said the case appears to be a clear denial of voting rights, especially since some of the men's ballots were counted and others were not.
"The feds should go after this," he said.