A rescinded attempt to encourage voting in this year’s Kerrville city elections has raised issues about whether offering rent rebates for casting ballots could violate state bribery laws.
In the March 2018 community newsletter for The Meadows Apartments — a senior community at 2300 Junction Highway — an announcement was made for a March 8 meet-and-greet with mayoral candidate Bill Blackburn and Kerrville City Council candidates Judy Eychner and Delayne Sigerman.
Included in the announcement was a note that any community member who later brought in a “physical representation” of an “I Voted” sticker during the elections would receive a $20 rebate on a future month’s rent.
The mention of the rent rebate was mentioned again in The Meadows’ April newsletter.
“Thanks to those that attended our Meet and Greet with candidates for city elections,” the newsletter reads. “Remember, when you vote in the city election to bring in the I Voted sticker to get a $20 rent rebate!”
In neither instance was there any mention of supporting a particular candidate, nor was it required that residents show who they voted for in the election to receive the rebate.
Mayor Bonnie White, who is running for re-election against Blackburn, said she was given copies of the newsletters by the daughter of a member of The Meadows community. White said she was concerned the voting incentive could be against state law and submitted a letter to the editor to The Kerrville Daily Times at about 1 p.m. Tuesday.
The Times contacted a spokesman for the Texas Secretary of State’s office about the legality of offering monetary incentives for votes.
“Our office strongly discourages offering any kind of financial benefit for voting, as it may constitute a violation of the Texas Penal Code on bribery,” Secretary of State Communications Director Sam Taylor said in an email.
Specifically at issue is section 36.02(a)(1) of the code, which says someone commits bribery if, among other things, they knowingly offer any benefit as consideration for the recipient’s vote.
“It would be up to a court to decide whether or not any illegal conduct occurred if a case were to be brought against an entity who offers such a benefit,” Taylor said.
Blackburn said he knew about the planned rent rebate offer, but said he understood it as being nothing more than an attempt at getting more people to vote in the elections — regardless of which box they intended to check on the ballot.
“I knew what the arrangement was,” Blackburn said. “But I also knew it was going to increase the number of voters registered to vote, but that nobody was going to ask any voter who they voted for.”
The rebate offer was rescinded Wednesday, according to a notice distributed to tenants that was provided to The Times by Steve Schulte, general counsel for MacDonald Companies — an umbrella entity for the limited partnership that owns and operates The Meadows, as well as three other LPs that operate similar Kerrville communities. The other communities are Heritage Oaks Apartments, The Gardens at Clearwater Apartments and Paseo de Paz Apartments. Schulte said the rebate program was intended to be offered at all the communities, but, on Friday afternoon, he could not confirm if it had been.
According to Schulte — as stated in the notice — the rebate program was canceled due to complaints from tenants. The notice also included a call for strong voter turnout regardless of any potential monetary offer and listed the early voting and election times and dates.
Schulte also said he had been made aware of rumors that some tenants who had cast early mail-in ballots — which can be done by some prior to the start of Monday’s in-person early voting period — had already received a rebate. He was not able to confirm if those rumors were true.
Schulte said he believes that, if true, only a few renters would have been issued the $20 rent discount.
“The intention was to get people to vote in this town,” Schulte said of the proposed rent discount. “We invited all of the candidates to do meet-and-greets at all four facilities.”
White and city council candidate Gary Cooper said they were not invited to any events at the communities connected with the MacDonald Companies until after White had raised the rent rebate issues.
White said she was first contacted about attending an event at one of the communities Tuesday, two hours after submitting her letter to The Times, which ran on Page 4A of the Thursday edition with an editor’s note including information from the Secretary of State’s office and the fact the rebate offer had been rescinded.
Schulte said he believes White and Cooper were first contacted either late last week or early this week.
On the legality of the proposed rent rebate offer, Schulte said some of the confusion was likely caused by a statute expressly forbidding offering expenditures for votes in federal elections, which would not apply to a city election.
White said she simply had questions and wanted to make sure they were raised.
“It looks awfully suspicious to me,” White said. “I’m not pointing any fingers at the three candidates. I didn’t accuse anybody of anything. I just asked the question. It just doesn’t look right to me.”