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Enlisting Absentee Military Voters Triggers Ballot War

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nowhere in the United States do Mexican Americans boast greater political might than in Texas, home to fully half of the nation’s 4,500-plus Latino elected officials. That influence is magnified the closer you get to the Rio Grande, where the civil rights struggles of a generation ago opened the corridors of power to an unprecedented roster of Spanish surnames.

But here in the remote border town of Del Rio, the bizarre vote of last November has cast a pall over those electoral gains.

The ex-leader of a Ku Klux Klan contingent in the Air Force, Murry M. Kachel, came from behind on election night to narrowly win a seat on the Val Verde County Commission. So did another white Republican, D’Wayne Jernigan, squeaking ahead in the race for sheriff. Not only did they score upset victories in a Democratic region, but they both defeated Mexican American candidates in a county that is among the most Mexican American in the nation.

Their secret? Absentee ballots, hundreds of them, submitted by far-flung military personnel--a procedure that the GOP insists was perfectly legitimate, but that is now the target of a potentially landmark legal challenge under the Voting Rights Act.

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Of the 800 absentee ballots that swung the election (Kachel won by 113 votes, Jernigan by 267), almost all were cast by officers once stationed at Laughlin Air Force Base, Del Rio’s economic linchpin. The problem is that most of those officers don’t actually live in Del Rio any more. Half of them have been gone at least five years. Some haven’t set foot in Val Verde County for as long as 15, 20, or even 25 years--not since Richard Nixon was in the White House.

“In a country that has always fought for democracy, this kind of fraud is a national shame,” said Jovita Casarez, a 54-year-old grandmother and former migrant worker, now the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit aimed at overturning the election. “You don’t need to be a wise man to see the reality of what happened.”

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Since her lawsuit was filed, Del Rio has become a rallying cry for a broad range of activists, whose dispute is driven partly by small-town bickering and partly by an issue of nationwide significance: Where should America’s 1.5 million military people, a nomadic force by necessity, vote?

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The losers, County Commission candidate Frank Coronado and incumbent Sheriff Oscar Gonzalez Jr., say they know where military personnel shouldn’t vote. Not in a community in which they don’t live, don’t own property, don’t have relatives and don’t maintain any other ties to suggest an eventual return.

“This isn’t about Hispanic or Anglo; it’s about 800 people diluting our local voice,” said Gonzalez, whose grandfather, Sergio, headed the County Commission in the 1970s and ‘80s, the first Mexican American elected to that post.

Defenders of the military vote argue that any attempt to challenge the use of mail-in ballots is ultimately an attack on their democratic rights. No other public servants are expected to travel so widely and so frequently in the name of American interests--and no other Americans are singled out to justify their choice of residence when it comes to election time.

“This lawsuit is an outrage,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), accusing its backers of “a cynical affront to our Constitution.”

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From the beginning, partisan fireworks have shrouded the suit, originally filed on Casarez’s behalf by Texas Rural Legal Aid. In January, a group of GOP leaders wrote to Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, asking her to intervene against the taxpayer-funded group, which eventually bowed out of the case.

Later, when U.S. District Judge Fred Biery found enough problems with the vote to temporarily bar the winners from taking office, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the House majority whip, accused him of bending to political pressures and called for his impeachment. In February, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) introduced a bill to guarantee the right of military personnel to vote in any local race, regardless of how long they’ve been away.

“It’s disheartening that some people have such a hard time accepting the results of an election,” said Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas), offering the “sour grapes” theory for the lawsuit.

But some of the GOP flag-waving has waned recently, now that Commissioner-elect Kachel has owned up to his ex-klan affiliations. It’s still not clear whether Republicans in Del Rio knew of his tarnished record before the Nov. 5 election; some say it was an open secret, although it never surfaced as an issue in the campaign.

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After the election, however, copies began to surface of a 1981 article from the German news magazine Stern that described Kachel--then a sergeant assigned to the 52nd Tactical Bomber Wing at Spangdahlem--as “chief of the German Ku Klux Klan.” Photos clearly showed his face peeking out of a white robe and cone-shaped hood.

Still, Kachel denied the charge, even swearing in a deposition to Texas Rural Legal Aid attorneys that he had never donned klan regalia. The old photos, he said, were a complete fabrication--a “cut-and-paste job.” A liberal political journal, the Texas Observer, got hold of one picture and reprinted it on the cover of its Feb. 14 edition. Kachel quickly amended his deposition, changing a litany of “No, sirs” to “Yes, sirs.”

Finally, in a statement to the Del Rio News-Herald on Feb. 21--under the somewhat unseemly headline, “Kachel Komes Klean"--the 42-year-old retired air traffic controller said he had confessed his wrongs “to God, my priest, my family and my attorney.” He said he had lied about his past because he was “so ashamed and embarrassed that I could have ever been associated with such a group.”

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Recently, Kachel announced that he was relinquishing his seat on the County Commission altogether, given that no Republican money had come through to help him defend his claim in court. But a state judge, who will weigh the legitimacy of the disputed ballots at an April 21 hearing, refused to accept Kachel’s withdrawal from the case, leaving it uncertain whether he might still be eligible to assume the post.

The answers will hinge largely on an interpretation of murky and occasionally contradictory U.S. and Texas election laws.

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Under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, which has existed in various forms since 1955, the federal government must help ensure that military personnel, wherever they may be, have access to the polls. The primary device is the Federal Post Card Application, a mail-in registration form that qualifies them to receive an absentee ballot for federal races--from Congress to president--but not necessarily for local elections.

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“That’s between the citizen and the state; it’s not for this office to determine,” said Phyllis Taylor, director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, which is under the aegis of the Defense Department.

When it comes to local elections, however, Texas officials don’t generally scrutinize Federal Post Card Applications before sending out absentee ballots. “It’s not my job,” said Val Verde County Clerk Maria Elena Cardenas, who is named as a defendant in the voting rights suit. If an applicant wants to call Val Verde County his home, “I have to honor that,” she said, adding that it “would be impossible” to try to verify whether every absentee military voter truly qualifies as a local resident.

And what qualifies a voter as a local resident? There’s no easy answer to that, although Texas courts in the past have looked to a combination of factors, including property records, bank accounts, family ties and physical presence.

Many of the absentee voters here, however, appear to have picked Val Verde County as their voting residence merely out of convenience--the first stop in a long, peripatetic career--not to mention its location in a state that boasts no income tax.

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One Air Force colonel who voted by mail, according to court documents, resided in Val Verde County only between 1972 and 1974. Since then, he’s been stationed in Arkansas, North Carolina, Colorado, Britain, the Philippines and, currently, in O’Fallon, Ill., where he owns a house. His wife also voted in Val Verde County, as did their 24-year-old son, who was an infant when the family last called Texas home.

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“You can see the room for abuse,” said Texas Rural Legal Aid executive director David Hall, noting the potential for a vast “stealth vote.”

If everyone ever stationed at Laughlin Air Force Base chose to cast ballots in Val Verde County, he said, the number of absentee voters would easily exceed the nearly 19,000 registered voters who actually live here. “It’s utterly unpredictable,” Hall said. “It all depends on who solicits the votes.”

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Although they have no proof, the losing Democratic candidates in this case allege that GOP strategists recruited military voters to cast ballots in Val Verde County, possibly using a list of people who served at Laughlin Air Force Base. Virtually all of the Federal Post Card Applications received here came from Republicans, most of them commissioned officers with non-Spanish surnames.

The GOP denies that charge, as does Kachel, who said he mailed campaign literature to out-of-town military voters, but only after their applications for absentee ballots were already on file. The Democrats “had the opportunity to do the exact same thing, and they opted not to,” Kachel said in an interview. “Now, when the outcome is less than favorable, they want to cry foul.”

His opponent in Commissioner’s Precinct 1--a seat that has been held by a Latino for the last quarter-century--agreed that the opportunity had been available. “But I don’t believe I would seek out a voter that does not have a legitimate, vested, bona fide interest in this community,” said Coronado, 61, a retired deputy commissioner with the California Parole Board who recently moved back to his home town of Del Rio after 18 years in Sacramento.

Just as Kachel’s skeletons have been excavated since the election, Coronado also has had to fend off charges that he had his own brush with an unsavory group years ago.

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In a 1977 Reader’s Digest article that has been circulating around Del Rio, Coronado is named as a “supporter” of an East Los Angeles self-help program allegedly infiltrated by the Mexican Mafia. An investigation by the California attorney general’s office ultimately cleared Coronado, who insists that he supported the concept of the program but was unaware of any links to organized crime.

Underlying the entire dispute is a fact, publicly discussed by few, that puts some of the onus for last November’s vote back onto Val Verde County.

Despite their great numbers here--75% of the population and 55% of registered voters--Mexican Americans simply don’t go to the polls in the same proportion as whites.

If they did, 800 ballots--wherever they’re from--couldn’t have diluted the Latino voice.

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“That’s regrettable,” Coronado said, “but true.”


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