Intimidation: Bowie County TX-Style

The flags of texas and the United States fly together

A pattern of intimidation of elderly African-American voters continues in Texarkana (Bowie County) Texas.  It turns out some of the same cast of characters is involved and are now affiliating themselves with the Tea Party movement.  The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is investigating but, unfortunately, the harassment has continued unabated.

Just prior to the November 2010 general elections, I brought to the attention of DOJ incidents in Texarkana, where elderly African-American voters, many of whom were homebound disabled, were being visited by two white women and interrogated about their absentee ballots.  These interrogations were being conducted by two women - subsequently identified as county clerk elect Natalie Nichols and Kathy Hicks - were not law enforcement or other governmental officials.  The voters they targeted had provided detailed accounts of the visits from the two women and described how they felt harassed and even intimidated by the women’s interrogation.  The two women involved are part of or affiliated with a group of several private citizens in Texarkana who have been harassing African-American voters for years in the County and have been the subject of at least one prior DOJ investigation of voter intimidation.  One of the main targets of their acts of intimidation has been African American city councilwoman Willie Ray, who for many years has been assisting her elderly, disabled, homebound friends and neighbors in casting ballots - all perfectly legal actions. 

A few years ago, Texas amended its election laws and made it a crime to mail a ballot envelope for another unless the person mailing it signed the ballot envelope (which did not include a place on the envelope for the mailer to do so).  The new law was not only under- publicized, the Texas Secretary of State’s own website about the law contained misleading information about it—misinformation that led to over a dozen elderly minority women (like Ms. Ray) being indicted for the “crime” of mailing a ballot for another and not signing the ballot envelope.  Even though the persons indicted had not been accused of doing anything fraudulent with the mail-in ballots—after all, their only “crime” was mailing a ballot for a shut-in—they were nevertheless indicted and prosecuted by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.   Abbott touted the prosecutions as proof Texas has a voter fraud epidemic—a phony charge given the crime here was merely mailing the ballot for another and not signing the envelope.  And you guessed it, these phony claims of voter fraud have been used repeatedly by Texas legislators and state officials as the reasonTexas needs a photo ID requirement for voting. 

Now back to Ms. Willie Ray and the events of 2010.  Ms. Ray was indicted around 2005 for mailing the ballots of elderly shut-ins; she pled guilty, paid a fine and was placed on probation.  The two white women who in 2010 went around interrogating and harassing elderly black voters are part of the group of private citizens who have been after Ms. Ray for years and who had complained to Attorney General Abbott about her “vote fraud” activities.  Since her conviction for mailing ballots of others without signing them first, her persecutors – including Kathy Hick’s husband Rusty - have widely disseminated information falsely claiming Ms. Ray has been convicted of vote fraud and at one point a couple of years ago, followed her around Texarkana 24-7 with a video camera for a few weeks in a failed attempt to prove she really didn’t live in Texarkana.  DOJ is currently reviewing the complaint filed by the Legal Center to determine if the more recent intimidation/harassment tactics of the home visits by Ms. Hicks and Natalie Nichols violated the Voting Rights Act.

The Legal Center has obtained a copy of a new complaint to DOJ from the BowieCounty Elections Administrator in Texarkana, Mr. George Stegall.  Mr. Stegall has been Elections Administrator for the last five years and has performed admirably well.  Mr. Stegall has written this disturbing letter to the Department of Justice alleging numerous instances in which election officials have been attacked by this private group of vigilantes.  According to Mr. Stegall, “attacks” from these individuals (along with the newly elected county clerk and the leader of the Bowie County Tea Party/Patriot group) “have been multiplied and voter intimidation has gone beserk[.]”  The attacks have been verbal in nature until October 15, 2010, “when suddenly Ms. Nichols grabbed [a county elections office staff person’s] arm and threatened her in a whisper, overheard by another employee of the county elections office.”  Ms. Nichols falsely claimed that the staff person was violating the law, engaging in vote fraud, and would be brought up on charges.  This incident has been reported to both the local District Attorney’s office and the Department of Justice (by CLC staff on October 29, 2010). Mr. Stegall’s letter cries out for help from DOJ.  He alleges intimidation and fear, on behalf of himself, his staff, and minority voters who were visited by Ms. Nichols and Ms. Hicks.  The entire matter warrants a serious and full investigation.  It has become clear that until DOJ acts to halt this ongoing pattern of harassment in Bowie County, it will only continue and is likely to escalate.  The time to act is now.