A Gregg County commissioner charged with election fraud will continue to serve on the court while his case works its way through the judicial system.

Pct. 4 Commissioner Shannon Brown, 49, and three other people were arrested Thursday in connection with what the Texas Attorney General’s Office calls an organized vote-harvesting scheme during the 2018 Democratic primary election.

Brown was charged with 23 felonies, while Marlena Jackson, 50, of Marshall, was charged with 97 felonies. Charlie Burns, 84 of Longview, was charged with eight felonies, and DeWayne Ward, 58, of Longview, was charged with six felonies.

Charges included engaging in organized election fraud, illegal voting, fraudulent use of mail ballot application, unlawful possession of ballot/ballot envelope, election fraud and tampering with a governmental record with intent to harm or defraud.

County Judge Bill Stoudt said Friday that the commissioners court will continue “business as usual.”

“It will look like it has in the past,” he said.

Stoudt said “Brown will serve until a decision is made,” meaning until there is a trial or other conclusion to the case.

According to state law, a county official may be removed from office for incompetency, official misconduct or intoxication on or off duty caused by drinking an alcoholic beverage. The state defines “official misconduct” as “intentional, unlawful behavior relating to official duties by an officer entrusted with the administration of justice or the execution of the law.”

Also, the conviction of a county official for any felony or for a misdemeanor involving official misconduct results in an immediate removal from office.

Commissioners are set to meet at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Gregg County Courthouse for their regular meeting.

District Attorney Tom Watson declined to comment Friday on specifics of the case but issued a statement.

“Voting is one of our most precious rights as Americans,” he said. “We get to choose who we want to represent our interests, locally, statewide, and nationally. Unfortunately, there are individuals out there who would jeopardize the integrity of our elections for personal gain. My office stands strong with the Attorney General’s Office to ensure that the integrity of our electoral system is protected.”

Ballot safety

The charges against Brown and the others come on the heels of national discussion regarding the safety of mail-in ballots ahead of the November election.

Gregg County Democratic Party Chair Phillip Burns said Friday that he questions the timing of the charges as voters who applied for mail-in ballots soon will be receiving them. The indictments were filed more than two years after the offenses are said to have occurred.

“This is coming behind President (Donald) Trump’s thing to discredit mail ballots,” Burns said.

Trump has spoken out against mail ballots in interviews and on Twitter for months as more states have pushed voting by mail for safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump has claimed that an increase in mail-in ballots would increase fraud during the election.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, which describes itself as a nonpartisan law and policy institute, voter fraud is rare.

The center published a series of studies after Trump’s claims that voter fraud was an issue in the 2016 presidential election. One report “reviewed elections that had been meticulously studied for voter fraud, and found incident rates between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent” for voter impersonation fraud.

In Texas, to be eligible to vote early by mail, a voter must be 65 or older, sick or disabled, be out of the county on Election Day and during the period for early voting, or be confined in jail but otherwise eligible.

Burns added that he believes “this is Republicans messing with the election.”

“This will light a fire to get Democrats to get out and vote,” he said.

Gregg County Republican Chair Gary Nice did not return a message Friday seeking comment.

The investigation

Questions were raised about absentee voting in Brown’s South Longview precinct after he won the 2018 Democratic primary for the commissioners seat against former Longview Councilwoman Kasha Williams.

The race between Brown and Williams drew 787 mail-in ballots, with about a third of those voters claiming a disability to qualify for absentee ballots.

The Rev. D.J. Nelson, a Pct. 4 voter and pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in Longview, filed a complaint with the elections division of the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, and an investigation was announced in May 2018.

Williams did not return messages Thursday or Friday seeking comment on the charges.

“While Williams defeated Brown by more than 20 points in in-person early voting and election day ballots, 73% of these 366 mail ballot votes were cast for Brown, who ultimately won the election by five votes,” said a Thursday statement from state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, and state Rep. Jay Dean, R-Longview. “According to county elections data, 69 percent of mail ballot applications for Brown’s race were marked as being assisted by a third-party.”

Brown’s win was confirmed in a recount, and Williams later filed a lawsuit, but that legal challenge to the election was tossed on a technicality before evidence was aired in court.

“Law enforcement officials spent hundreds of hours conducting numerous interviews with voters who cast their ballots by mail,” the Gregg County District Attorney’s office said in a statement. “Additionally, the Attorney General’s Office and its analysts reviewed and deciphered voluminous amounts of documents to determine which ballots were requested and cast fraudulently.”

The four suspects are set to be arraigned Oct. 9 in the 124th District Court.

Penalties for the offenses, upon conviction, range from six months in state jail to 99 years in prison.