Tarrant County officials announce efforts to fight voter fraud, even as election crimes remain rare
The Tarrant County judge, sheriff and district attorney are soliciting reports of voter fraud from the public with a new "election integrity task force."
Three top Tarrant County officials say they want to make it easier for the public to report voter fraud, although such fraud is rare, and the local elections office has been praised by the state for its quality and transparency.
County Judge Tim O’Hare, District Attorney Phil Sorrells and Sheriff Bill Waybourn, all Republicans, announced the creation of the Election Integrity Task Force on Wednesday afternoon in the sheriff’s downtown Fort Worth office.
This effort will not require any new hires and will have “little to no budgetary impact,” according to a press release. The task force will be made up of existing staff who will not work on voter fraud cases full time. They'll still have other investigative duties.
Waybourn declined to share the number of investigators who will be assigned to the task force. The difference is that they'll be directed to prioritize voter fraud cases when they come in, he said.
“We’re out to find the truth. And if that clears people, we want to clear them as well,” Waybourn said.
A state audit of the 2020 election in Tarrant County found that the local elections office runs a “quality, transparent election.” There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Tarrant County or elsewhere in the country, but conspiracy theories about voting and elections remain persistent, particularly among Republicans.
The task force isn’t born from any concern that past elections were invalid, said Tarrant County District Attorney Phil Sorrells.
"There are quite a few people that have some concerns, and we want to prove them either right or wrong," Sorrells said.
There are four voting-related cases pending in Tarrant County, Sorrells said. Those are all from 2018. There are no cases related to the 2020 or 2022 elections, he said.
Voter fraud cases used to get kicked up to the state attorney general’s office, Waybourn said. But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in September that Attorney General Ken Paxton doesn’t have full authority over election crimes, directing the responsibility back to county DAs, the Texas Tribune reported.
There will also be a hotline and email that voters can contact directly with election integrity issues, the officials said. The phone number provided on a press release, 817-884-1213, is the same one listed online as the non-emergency line for the whole sheriff’s department.
This announcement is an effort to deter voter fraud, even if it’s rare, O’Hare said.
"I don't think any of us are sitting here telling you that we know we're going to get thousands of arrests and indictments and convictions,” he said. “There has not really been in the past a central place for people to go or they didn't know where to go."
A notable absence from the press conference: Heider Garcia, the person in charge of running Tarrant County elections. Waybourn, Sorrells and O’Hare said they did not consult with Garcia or any other officials about the election integrity task force.
As elections administrator, Garcia has endured death threats and racist attacks as far-right news outlets peddled conspiracy theories about him and the elections process in Tarrant County. He wrote in to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 2022, asking for better protections for election workers across the country. He shared screenshots of some of the threats he and his family received after former president Donald Trump lost Tarrant County during the 2020 presidential election.
“Go find this guy, he needs some new teeth,” one social media poster said about him.
“[Expletive] needs a traditional Irish dirt nap,” said another.
Someone else shared Garcia’s home address on Twitter.
The threat level was still high as of last year, Garcia wrote in his letter.
“We have spent 18 months turning this office inside out, sharing public records, welcoming watchers, participating in public events, and providing answers to the public,” Garcia wrote. “Still, there are those who prefer to believe that ‘there has to be something wrong.’”
While he was receiving death threats, the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office “was fantastic at coordinating support and patrol around our neighborhood,” Garcia wrote.
KERA reached out to Garcia for comment but did not hear back by this story’s deadline.
When asked if the election integrity task force, and the act of soliciting reports from the public, might contribute to the attacks and scrutiny on election workers, O’Hare said everyone should have an interest in free and fair elections.
"The idea that this somehow is voter intimidation, who would we be intimidating? People that are cheating? People that are committing crimes?” O’Hare said. “Well, we want to intimidate them, and we want to find them, prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law, and let them know that that's not going to happen here in Tarrant County.”
O’Hare ran for office on a promise to prioritize election integrity, but on Wednesday he walked back the original proposal he set forward in his campaign. He originally wanted to create the position of an “election integrity officer,” who would be “responsible for overseeing election processes” and uncovering election fraud. This task force will perform the same responsibilities as an election integrity officer, O'Hare said.
To combat Election Fraud in Tarrant County, I’ve proposed a new position: Election Integrity Officer. This person will report to the Sheriff, County Judge and a County Commissioner. They will review election processes, make recommendations and seek to find Voter Fraud. pic.twitter.com/PL936bOys1— Tim O'Hare (@TimothyOHare) October 25, 2021
People in Tarrant County have been prosecuted for election-related crimes before. In 2018, Justice of the Peace Russ Casey pleaded guilty to tampering with a government record after he faked signatures on his petition to get on the ballot, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
Crystal Mason was convicted of illegal voting and sentenced to five years in prison. She submitted a provisional ballot in the 2016 election, while she was on supervised release for a federal crime, according to the Texas Tribune. Her controversial case has gained national attention, because Mason maintains she did not know she was ineligible to vote, and a poll worker told her to fill out that provisional ballot. The highest criminal court in the state ruled last year that her conviction must be reconsidered.
Got a tip? Email Miranda Suarez at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow Miranda on Twitter @MirandaRSuarez.
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