Voter fraud allegations fuel a battle for political control in oil-rich Loving County, Texas

Loving County’s long history of spiteful politics has generated allegations of voter fraud dating back to the 1940s, but a new state law and frustrated local officials have put out-of-county voters in the crosshairs. Renteria is currently under investigation by the state attorney general’s office. A justice of the peace recently ordered that he and three others who showed up as jurors be sent to jail for allegedly not living in the county.

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

Texas election code requires commissioner candidates to permanently reside in the county they plan to run for at least six months before running for office. Applications are submitted under oath, with the possible penalty of perjury.

The sheriff said someone (not him) filed a complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s office saying Renteria didn’t live in Loving County. NBC News filed a public information request requesting a copy of the complaint from the attorney general’s office, but officials withheld it, citing “an active criminal investigation by the OAG’s Criminal Investigations Division.”

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

For generations, descendants of politically powerful families have voted here, although they moved decades ago in search of other opportunities. They pursued their dreams in big cities like Amarillo, Lubbock and Odessa, building quarries and raising families hundreds of miles from the only town in that county, Mentone, which has a population of 22.

In the March primary election, 1 in 5 voters in Loving County had property exemptions elsewhere in Texas, according to an NBC News analysis of tax and election records.

It’s a bitter pill for some who live in Loving County, where there’s no school, no grocery store, no bank, and no barbershop.

County Sheriff Chris Busse said he’s frustrated with voters who live in other cities but come to visit a few times a year, often for Election Day and the annual Christmas party.NBC News/Love County Sheriff’s Office

Busse, a 22-year Air Force veteran, said it was easy to spot unfamiliar faces in the Old Courthouse on election days. “They have a voter’s card,” he said. “But the only time you see them is when it’s time to vote or at the annual Christmas party.”

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

Then, last year, following former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen, the Texas Legislature passed a law that tightened the definition of residency for voter registration. voters. Known as SB 1111, the new law – effective September 1, 2021 – says people can use “previous residences” to register to vote only if they live there at the time and plan to move there. stay there. But he left in a hazy provision that allows people to vote in places they intend to return to – making the impact of the measure as murky as the brackish waters of the Pecos River.

By law, voter registries can send address confirmation cards to people they suspect may not live in their county, requiring them to affirm their address under oath before they can vote again.

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

The criminal investigation into Renteria and Busse’s efforts to suppress out-of-town voters has added fresh hay to an already scorching political storm ahead of the November election. Renteria, who faces his first opponent since taking office more than a decade ago, is closely aligned with the ruling political family, the Joneses, who face their own challenges.

Image: Skeet Jones
Justice Skeet Jones, 71, oversees the court of commissioners, which manages a budget of around $28 million.Sarah M. Vasquez for NBC News

In May, 71-year-old Judge Skeet Jones, the county’s most powerful politician, was arrested on felony charges of rustling cattle and participating in organized crime. Three ranch hands were also arrested; none of the four men have yet been charged. Jones, who is running unopposed this fall, declined to comment. His lawyer did not return the calls.

Some of the politics now being played out can be traced back to long-running bitter rivalries between the Joneses and other prominent families. Adding to tensions, new residents deemed “outsiders” have campaigned for changes to the way the county is run. And politics got personal: Members of the Jones family compete to become county clerk.

Loving County’s top elected official has been charged with cattle rustling

  • Judge Skeet Jones, scion of a powerful ranching family, was arrested in May after a year-long investigation.
  • He was charged with cattle rustling and engaging in criminal activity, accused of rounding up and selling stray cattle.
  • Authorities said the investigation was ongoing.

“Everyone says politics is a blood sport,” said Steve Simonsen, the county attorney. “Well, here it is.”

“This will eliminate 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 check in where they live.” But its reach was also limited.

Bettencourt introduced the legislation after saying he learned that about 4,800 Harris County voters had registered to vote using UPS store post office boxes as addresses. He wanted to eliminate the use of ‘impossible’, uninhabitable addresses.

The law also states that no one can use a previous residence to register to vote “unless the person lives in the place at the time of nomination and intends to stay there.”

When Busse read the law, he thought, “Well, that’s going to knock some voters out of the county, because you can’t keep claiming residency in another city and then come here and vote,” he said. -he declares.

But he had questions about how to apply the new law as registrar of voters, so he called the office of the Texas secretary of state and spoke with Keith Ingram, the director of the elections division. . Ingram’s office handles complaints about violations of election law and can refer them to the attorney general’s office for criminal prosecution. Sanctions are rare: the attorney general’s office has managed to prosecute only about 155 people for voter fraud offenses since 2005.

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

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

Ingram said that under SB 1111 it’s pretty clear that “if people don’t live in their mobile home, they shouldn’t be allowed to use it for voter registration.”

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

If people have property in Loving County and go back once or twice a year and spend a few days there, Ingram said, “I think, probably, they live there and they can lay claim to it. as a residence.”

Busse said he heard a key word in Ingram’s explanation – “probably” – and concluded the law was not entirely clear.

Ingram also told Busse that someone who lives largely elsewhere for decades might consider this a “temporary absence.”

“‘Temporary’ may be the 30 years of my legal career if I intend to retire where I grew up,” he said. “And I’ll visit for a week every summer or a week in the fall, every year. Then I think “temporary” is in the eyes of the beholder at that time. »

Ingram said if a close election results in a legal challenge, it would be up to a judge to decide whether individual voters meet the residency requirements.

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

After the primary elections in March, Busse recalled Ingram in frustration. The race for the commissioner in the Busse district, precinct 4, had ended in an 8-5 vote.

“Three of the votes cast were by people who don’t live in the county. They all three live in Kermit, Texas,” more than 30 miles from Mentone, he said.

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

Ingram said there was no way to challenge the election results unless a lawsuit was 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 placed in “suspension”, which means they can no longer vote without making affidavits regarding their residences. Someone who lies on the card can be prosecuted for making a false statement (a misdemeanor) and swearing under oath (a felony). The maximum penalty for the misdemeanor is up to one year in prison; the crime can last up to two years.

In June, Busse said he and a voter registry staffer compiled a list of everyone on the voter rolls they suspected did not live in Loving County. They looked at voters who used PO boxes elsewhere. They also relied on their own “personal knowledge” of where people actually live and work, Busse said. The 44 cards they sent are now coming back to the office.