Voter fraud claims are heating up the battle for political control in oil-rich Loving County, Texas

Loving County’s long history of partisan politics has led to allegations of voter fraud dating back to the 1940s, but a new state law and frustrated local officials have put voters outside the county’s city in the crosshairs. Renteria is now being investigated by the state attorney general’s office. A justice of the peace recently jailed him and three others who showed up for jury duty for allegedly not living in the county.

Renteria, a descendant of a longtime farming family, owns a ranch with a 2,500-square-foot home in neighboring Reeves County, about a half-hour’s drive away. Since at least 2011, when he became commissioner in Loving County, he has claimed a homestead exemption on a home in Reeves County—a tax break given to Texas taxpayers on their “prime residences,” records show. .

The Texas election code requires candidates to reside continuously in the county for commissioner they plan to represent for at least six months before filing for office. Applications are submitted under oath, with possible punishment of perjury.

The sheriff said that someone (not he) filed a complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s office that Renteria does not live in Loving County. NBC News filed a public information request asking the attorney general’s office for a copy of the complaint, but officials withheld it, citing “an active criminal investigation being conducted by OAG’s Criminal Investigation Division.”

Renteria, 61, declined to speak to a reporter and did not respond to written questions. His lawyer did not return phone calls.

Descendants of politically powerful families have voted here for generations, despite having moved decades ago in search of other opportunities. They’ve pursued their dreams in big cities like Amarillo, Lubbock and Odessa, building careers and raising families hundreds of miles away from the county’s only city, Menton, population 22.

In the March primary election, 1 in 5 voters in Loving County had a state exemption than elsewhere in Texas, an NBC News analysis of tax and voter records shows.

This is a bitter pill for some living in Loving County, where there are no schools, no supermarkets, no banks and no hairdressers.

Image: Chris Buss.
Loving County Sheriff Chris Busey said he was disappointed with voters who live in other cities but visit a few times a year, often on Election Day and for the annual Christmas party.NBC News / Loving County Sheriff’s Office

Busse, a 22-year-old Air Force veteran, said it’s easy to pick up unfamiliar faces in the old courthouse on election day. He said, ‘He has a voter card. “But you only see them when it’s time to vote or at the annual Christmas party.”

For years, Busse said, there wasn’t much he could do about voters who didn’t actually live in the county. Texas voter residency law was loose, allowing people to vote in places they did not live but intend to return someday, as long as they had homes there.

Then, last year, in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the election had been stolen, the Texas Legislature passed a law that tightened the residency definition for voter registration. The new law, known as SB 1111 – effective September 1, 2021 – says that people can use “previous residences” to register to vote only if they are living there at the time and need to live there. are planning. But it left in a vague provision that allows people to vote in the places they intend to return – making the effect of the measurement as cloudy as the salt water of the Pecos River.

Under the law, voter registrants can send address confirmation cards to people they suspect do not live in their county, requiring them to confirm their address under oath before they can vote again.

That’s what Busse did in Loving County in June, with 44 cards — nearly half of the county’s registered voters — requiring them to say where they lived, with potential penalties of perjury. Some took it as a “personal attack” and accused Basse of misinterpreting the law, but said his only goal was to comply.

Renteria’s criminal investigation and Bassey’s push to crack down on out-of-town voters have added freshness to an already smoldering political fire in November’s election. Renteria, who is facing his first rival since taking office more than a decade ago, is closely associated with the current political family, the Joneses, who face their own challenges.

Image: Skeet Jones
Judge Skeet Jones, 71, oversees the Court of Commissioners, which runs a budget of approximately $28 million.Sarah M. Vasquez for NBC News

In May, the county’s most powerful politician, 71-year-old Judge Skeet Jones, was arrested Serious allegation of cattle rustle and is involved in organized crime. Three farm hands were also arrested; None of the four people have been charged yet. Jones, who is running unopposed this fall, declined to comment. His lawyer did not return the call.

All that politics is playing out now is a long-standing bitter rivalry between the Joneses and other prominent families. Adding to the tension, new residents seen as “outsiders” are agitating for changes in the way the county is run. And politics has gotten personal: Members of the Jones family are running against each other for county clerk.

Top elected official in Loving County was charged with cattle theft

  • Judge Skeet Jones was a descendant of a powerful ranching family arrested in may After a year’s investigation.
  • They were accused of engaging in livestock theft and criminal activities, collecting and selling stray cattle.
  • Officials said that the investigation is on.

“Everybody says politics is a blood game,” County Attorney Steve Simonsen said. “Okay, here it is.”

‘It’s going to beat out some voters’

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Harris County Republican who sponsored SB 1111, said the intent of the law was simple: “to get people to register where they live.” But its scope was also limited.

Bettencourt introduced the law when he said he learned that about 4,800 voters in Harris County had registered to vote using a UPS Store PO Box as their address. He wanted to end the use of “impossible,” uninhabited addresses.

The law also states that one cannot use a previous residence to register to vote “unless the person has lived and intends to reside in that place at the time of designation.”

When Busse read the law, he thought, “Well, that would exclude some county voters, because you can’t continue to claim residency in another city and then come here and vote,” he said. .

But he had questions about how to enforce the new law as a voter registrar, so he called the Texas Secretary of State’s office and spoke to Keith Ingram, director of the Department of Elections. Ingram’s office files complaints about election law violations and may refer them to the attorney general’s office for criminal prosecution. Punishment is rare: the attorney general’s office has successfully prosecuted only 155 people for electoral fraud offenses since 2005.

Ingram told NBC News that Busse asked about some scenarios in Loving County, including an abandoned mobile home “in which no one lives, no one moves, no one has utilities.”

“And people are claiming that as their residence for the purpose of voting,” he said.

Ingram said that under SB 1111, it is very clear that “if people do not live in their mobile home, they should not be allowed to use it for voter registration.”

Busse also asked Ingram about the voters he sees only once or twice a year. Ingram’s answer was not what Bussey expected. While the new law requires people to live in the homes where they registered to vote, it still includes an earlier provision that allows people to register in the homes they “return to”. We intend to,” Ingram said.

If people have property in Loving County and they go back once or twice a year and spend a few days there, Ingram said, “I think, sure, they take up residence in that place, and they do it. can claim as residence.”

Busse said he heard a key word in Ingram’s explanation — “arguably” — and concluded that the law is not entirely clear.

Ingram also told Busse that someone living elsewhere for decades might consider a “temporary absence.”

“‘Temporary’ could be 30 years of my legal career, if I want to retire from where I grew up,” he said. “And I go every year for one week in the summer or one week in the fall. Then I think ‘temporary’ is in the eye of the beholder at that time.”

Ingram said that if a close election results in a court challenge, it will be up to a judge to decide whether individual voters meet residency requirements.

Otherwise, Busse’s power as registrar was limited, Ingram told him.

After the March primary election, Busse disappointedly recalled Ingram. The commissioner’s race in Basse District, Precinct 4, was reduced to 8-5 votes.

“Of the votes that were cast, three were people who do not live in the county. All three of them live in Kermit, Texas,” he said, more than 30 miles from Menton.

He liked both candidates, but he was upset. “This is a situation where my vote didn’t count,” he said.

Ingram said there was no way to challenge the election results short of a lawsuit filed in district court.

But there was one thing Busse could do: send voter registration address confirmation cards. If voters do not respond within 30 days, they are put into “suspense”, meaning they cannot vote again without giving an affidavit about their residence. Someone who lies on a card can be prosecuted for making a false statement (misconduct) and for taking an oath under oath (a felony). The maximum punishment for misdemeanor is up to one year in prison; The felony is for two years.

In June, Busse said he and a member of the voter registrar staff compiled a list of all those on the voter list who he suspected did not actually live in Loving County. He saw voters who used post office boxes elsewhere. They also relied on their own “personal knowledge” of where people actually live and work, Busse said. The 44 cards sent by him are now being returned to the office.

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