Texas Conservatives Want Private Cops to Police Elections
With help from the attorney general, stop-the-steal activists are raising money for private investigators to search for voter fraud—part of a larger effort to criminalize elections and voting.
Michael Barajas, | April 11, 2022
David Lopez usually started work before dawn as an air conditioning repairman in Houston. He was driving his box truck to his first job of the day on October 19, 2020, when a Black SUV rammed into him from behind early in the morning, forcing him off the road. When Lopez got out to check on the driver of the SUV, according to a lawsuit he filed last year, a man stepped out pointing a gun at him and barking orders to get on the ground. He held Lopez face down on the side of the road with his knee in his back and a pistol pointed at his head, at one point cocking the gun. Thinking it was a robbery, Lopez watched as accomplices pulled up to search the truck and then eventually drove off with it.
Except Lopez wasn’t being robbed. He had instead stumbled into the crosshairs of local conservatives hunting for voter fraud ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
When actual police officers later questioned the man who allegedly held Lopez at gunpoint, former Houston police captain Mark Aguirre, he said his crew had been monitoring Lopez around-the-clock for days and accused the repairman of harboring 750,000 fraudulent mail ballots. According to the lawsuit, Aguirre told police that Lopez had been “using Hispanic children to sign the ballots because the children’s fingerprints would not appear in any database.” Aguirre, who was fired from the Houston Police Department in 2003 over a botched raid, according to the Houston Chronicle, was eventually indicted for a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon two months after crashing into Lopez and holding him at gunpoint.
Aguirre wasn’t acting alone, but rather as part of a broader effort by the right in Texas to set up and finance private election police. When it indicted Aguirre, the Harris County DA’s office alleged that he received wire transfers of over $250,000 from the Liberty Center for God and Country, a nonprofit run by notorious conservative activist Steven Hotze. Lopez is now suing Hotze and his nonprofit for civil conspiracy and civil theft.
Hotze has kept up his efforts since 2020 and, despite this bungling tack record, some prominent Texas Republicans are supporting him.
On April 2, Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton helped headline a “Freedom Gala” at a hotel in downtown Houston. The gala was a fundraiser organized by Hotze and his group to raise money to, among other goals, “hire private detectives to investigate, identify, and expose the criminal vote fraud scheme in Harris County and across Texas.” Speakers included Big Lie evangelist Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow, as well as Harris County (Houston) Republican Party Chair Cindy Siegel, who also sits on the county’s elections commission.
Civil rights advocates warn that deploying police or police-like forces to monitor voting has chilling effects, and that it echoes a history of intimidation deployed against Black voters. Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas, said Lopez’s experience highlights the dangers of hired-guns motivated by the Big Lie. “The possibilities are kind of endless for how that could go really badly,” Gutierrez said of Hotze’s plans to hire more voter-fraud detectives.
Other Republican officials in Harris County, a diverse and increasingly blue area that is home to nearly 5 million residents, have built parallel efforts to monitor voting. Last year, as Republican lawmakers passed legislation emboldening partisan poll watchers, local officials started building what they’ve called an “army” to monitor busy urban polling places. In one presentation, party officials even pointed to Houston’s Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, a hub for civil rights activism that once hosted Martin Luther King Jr., as the kind of inner-city polling place conservatives need to more closely watch in the future.
Christina Das, an attorney who leads the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s election protection work in Texas and South Carolina, says Texas’s new voting law, Senate Bill 1, already seems to be impacting local election systems. “Staffing shortages, poll sites closing… these happened in the March 1 election,” Das told Bolts, saying the threat of new penalties for election workers exacerbated those problems.
“It’s a 360-degree approach to criminalizing our elections so that people don’t turn out, they don’t show up, they don’t work the polls and they don’t get to the polls,” Das said.
Private voter-fraud squads and S.B. 1 are part of a larger attempt to criminalize elections in Texas. Paxton, who aided in the legal efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential race, has beefed up the voter fraud unit of his office in recent years in order to prosecute more election-related cases, the vast majority of which appear to target Black and Latinx people. And other states are following suit. Last year Georgia Republicans passed a law criminalizing volunteers who give free food, water, or other relief to voters waiting in long lines. Florida’s governor is expected to soon sign a law establishing a new state police force to investigate election-related crimes. Advocates for voting rights argue that these measures, coupled with high-profile prosecutions of Black voters who commit voting errors, seem designed to scare people away from the polls.
Even if Paxton spoke at Hotze’s fundraiser for more private voter-fraud detectives, it’s unclear what other ties his office has to the group’s actual investigations. Conservative activists in Texas have in the past boasted about working with Paxton’s office to cook up criminal cases alleging election-related crimes. Lopez’s lawsuit against Hotze and his Liberty Center claims that Aguirre called a lieutenant in Paxton’s office to request that they conduct a traffic stop for his investigation three days before Lopez’s roadside assault in October 2020. The lieutenant told Aguirre he couldn’t assign police to make a stop for him, according to the lawsuit, but Aguirre kept calling Paxton’s office, including the morning he pulled a gun on Lopez.
Paxton, who is up for re-election this year and faces a May 24 runoff against George P. Bush in the GOP primary, dedicated much of his speech at this month’s gala to attacking the all-Republican Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for a recent ruling that limits his authority to prosecute election-related crimes across the state, according to Quorum Report editor Scott Braddock, who attended and wrote about the event. Paxton has urged his supporters to pressure the high court judges to reverse their ruling restricting his authority to initiate voter fraud cases. A prosecutor challenging one of the judges who signed the ruling was endorsed by Hotze and his group but lost in the GOP primary on March 1.
In Harris County, that March 1 primary was marred by mistakes by election officials, which conservatives have seized on with more unsubstantiated rhetoric about voter fraud. After delays in vote-counting and thousands of mail-in ballots that were accidentally left off the county’s initial vote tally, Harris County’s nonpartisan elections administrator Isabel Longoria announced she would step down this summer. Harris County’s election commission—comprised of three elected county officials and the local party chairs, including Siegel—met for the first time in more than a year last week to discuss a timeline and plan for replacing Longoria. During public comments, one conservative activist said Longoria “should probably be put in jail for her actions.” The commission adjourned without taking action after arguing over the proper way to move forward with Longoria’s replacement.
In a video announcing his recent fundraiser, Hotze called the mistakes made in Harris County during the primary “a prelude to what they will do to us in the general election if we don’t organize.” Hotze also referenced Lopez’s lawsuit. “I’ve already been sued over this whole issue of trying to stop and expose voter fraud by the Democrats,” he said. “I am going to stand, nobody’s going to back me down, I’m going to be the tip of the spear here in Harris County.”