Vote-harvesting arrests

Top, from left: Gregg County Pct. 4 Commissioner Shannon Brown, Charlie Burns Bottom, from left: Marlena Jackson, DeWayne Ward

Editor's note: Find our updated story here

Gregg County Pct. 4 Commissioner Shannon Brown and  three others have been arrested in connection to an organized vote-harvesting scheme during the 2018 Democratic primary election, according to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. 

Brown, 49, along with Charlie Burns, 84, and DeWayne Ward, 58, all of Longview, and Marlena Jackson, 50, of Marshall, were booked today into the Gregg County Jail. 

According to indictments in the case, Brown was charged with 23 felonies:

  • Engaging in organized election fraud
  • Seven counts of fraudulent use of mail ballot application enhanced
  • Two counts of unlawful possession of ballot/ballot envelope enhanced
  • Eight counts of election fraud enhanced
  • Five counts of tampering with a governmental record with intent to harm or defraud

Burns was charged with eight felonies:

  • Engaging in organized election fraud
  • Fraudulent use of application for ballot by mail
  • Five counts of possession of a ballot or carrier envelope enhanced
  • Tampering with a governmental record with intent to harm or defraud

Jackson was charged with 97 felonies:

  • Engaging in organized election fraud
  • Illegal voting
  • 31 counts of fraudulent use of mail ballot application enhanced
  • Seven counts of unlawful possession of ballot/ballot envelope enhanced
  • 31 counts of election fraud enhanced
  • 26 counts of tampering with a governmental record with intent to harm or defraud

Ward was charged with six felonies:

  • Engaging in organized election fraud
  • Unlawful possession of ballot/ballot envelope without request of voter enhanced
  • Four counts of unlawful possession of ballot/ballot envelope enhanced

124th District Court Judge Alfonso Charles said bond had been set at $25,000 for each. 

Questions about absentee voting emerged after Brown won the March 2018 Democratic primary against former Longview City Councilwoman Kasha Williams by five votes.

Brown's win came after a dead heat in early and Election Day vote totals was broken by his five-vote lead after a count of provisional ballots. Votes for brown numbered 73.4 percent of the absentee mail-in votes.

Brown's win was confirmed in a recount. Williams later filed a lawsuit challenging the election. 

Gregg County Elections Administrator Kathryn Nealy soon after the 2018 primary said she questions practices that for years have led to disproportionate numbers of mail-in ballots in the South Longview voting precinct.

In May 2018, Nealy said she suspected voter fraud in the March Pct. 4 commissioner race between Williams and Brown that was swung by nearly 800 mail-in ballots. In that race, 231 of the mailed ballots bore the signatures of five people who assisted voters. About one third of the voters using those mail-in, or absentee, ballots made a disability claim to qualify for them.

Later that month, local and regional elected officials announced at a press conference that the state was investigating the unusual number of mail-in ballots cast in the 2018 Democratic primary race for Pct. 4 commissioner in Gregg County. 

Senator Bryan Hughes, who was a part of the press conference in May 2018 and who has worked on a committee to combat voter fraud, was encouraged by the efforts of the attorney general, the district attorney and Gregg County Sheriff’s office, he said Thursday.

“Of course there is the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise,” Hughes said. “The justice system will run its course.”

He added that hundreds of witnesses were interviewed in this case.

“They really did their homework,” Hughes said. “This has been on the radar for a while now.”

This case in Gregg County and another in the state have been watched closely, he said.

“Of all the forms of voting, mail in ballots are the most vulnerable to cheating,” Hughes said. “We are supposed to learn.”

Hughes said mail-in ballots are important for voters, like those over 65-years old.

“Voting is great, cheating is not,” he said. “We have to secure Texas elections.”

Read Paxton's full statement about the investigation and arrests:

Attorney General Ken Paxton today announced that authorities arrested Gregg County Commissioner Shannon Brown, Marlena Jackson, Charlie Burns, and DeWayne Ward on charges in connection with an organized vote harvesting scheme during the 2018 Democratic primary election. To increase the pool of ballots needed to swing the race in Brown’s favor, the group targeted young, able-bodied voters to cast ballots by mail by fraudulently claiming the voters were “disabled,” in most cases without the voters’ knowledge or consent. Under Texas election law, mail ballots based on disability are specifically reserved for those who are physically ill and cannot vote in-person as a result.

In total, the state filed 134 felony charges against the four defendants, including engaging in organized election fraud, illegal voting, fraudulent use of an application for a mail-in ballot, unlawful possession of a mail-in ballot, tampering with a governmental record, and election fraud. Penalties for these offenses range from six months in state jail to 99 years in prison.

“It is an unfortunate reality that elections can be stolen outright by mail ballot fraud. Election fraud, particularly an organized mail ballot fraud scheme orchestrated by political operatives, is an affront to democracy and results in voter disenfranchisement and corruption at the highest level,” said Attorney General Paxton. “Mail ballots are vulnerable to diversion, coercion, and influence by organized vote harvesting schemes. This case demonstrates my commitment to ensuring Texas has the most secure elections in the country, and I thank the Gregg County Sheriff and District Attorney for their continued partnership. Those who try to manipulate the outcome of elections in Texas must be held accountable.”

A grand jury returned indictments on 23 felony counts against Commissioner Brown, 97 felony counts against Marlena Jackson, eight felony counts against Charlie Burns, and six felony counts against DeWayne Ward. The Office of the Attorney General was assisted by the Gregg County Sheriff’s Office during the investigation. The Texas Attorney General will prosecute this case alongside the Gregg County District Attorney.

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Digital editor

I'm a native Hoosier who has been in East Texas since 2003. I've been a photographer, page designer, web editor and a digital editor in Longview and Marshall.

Courtney Stern is a public safety reporter covering a wide range of topics. She grew up in Baltimore and later earned a journalism degree from the University of Miami. Stern moved to East Texas from Iowa with her husband and two dogs, Pebbles and Bam Bam.