Loving County’s long history of rancorous politics has generated allegations of voter fraud dating to the 1940s, but a new state law and frustrated local officials have put the county’s out-of-town voters in the crosshairs. Renteria is now under investigation by the state attorney general’s office. A justice of the peace recently ordered him and three other people who showed up for jury duty hauled off to jail for allegedly not living in the county.
Renteria, the descendant of a longtime farming family, owns a ranch with a 2,500-square-foot home in neighboring Reeves County, about a half-hour drive away. Since at least 2011, when he became a commissioner in Loving County, he has claimed a homestead exemption on the home in Reeves County — a tax break afforded to Texas taxpayers on their “principal residences,” records show.
Texas election code requires candidates for commissioner to continuously reside in the county they plan to represent for at least six months before they file to run 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 doesn’t live in Loving County. NBC News filed a public information request seeking a copy of the complaint from the attorney general’s office, but officials withheld it, citing “an active criminal investigation being conducted by the OAG’s Criminal Investigations Division.”
Renteria, 61, declined to speak with a reporter and didn’t respond to written questions. His lawyer didn’t return phone calls.
For generations, descendants of politically powerful families have cast their ballots here, despite having moved away decades ago in search of other opportunities. They have chased their dreams to big cities like Amarillo, Lubbock and Odessa, building careers and raising families hundreds of miles from this county’s only town, Mentone, population 22.
In the March primary election, 1 in 5 voters in Loving County had homestead exemptions elsewhere in Texas, an NBC News analysis of tax and voter records shows.
It’s a bitter pill for some who live in Loving County, where there’s no school, no supermarket, no bank and no barber.
Busse, a 22-year Air Force veteran, said it’s easy to pick out unfamiliar faces at the old courthouse on election days. “They have a vote 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, there wasn’t much he could do about voters who didn’t actually live in the county. Texas voter residency law was loose, allowing people to vote in places they didn’t live but intended to return to someday, so long as they had homes there.
Then, last year, in the wake of 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. Known as SB 1111, the new law — effective Sept. 1, 2021 — says people can use “previous residences” to register to vote only if they’re living there at the time and plan to stay there. But it left in a fuzzy provision that allows people to vote in places they intend to return to — making the measure’s impact as cloudy as the brackish waters of the Pecos River.
Under the law, voter registrars can send out address confirmation cards to people they suspect don’t live in their counties, requiring them to affirm their addresses under oath before they can vote again.
That’s what Busse did in Loving County in June, mailing out 44 cards — to nearly half of the county’s registered voters — requiring them to say where they live, with a possible penalty of perjury. Some people have taken it as a “personal attack” and accused Busse of misinterpreting the law, but he said his only goal is to follow it.
The criminal investigation into Renteria and Busse’s push to crack down on out-of-town voters have added fresh hay to an already smoldering political firestorm heading into the November election. Renteria, who is facing his first opponent since he took office more than a decade ago, is closely aligned with the reigning political family, the Joneses, who faces their own challenges.
In May, Judge Skeet Jones, 71, the most powerful politician in the county, was arrested on felony charges of cattle rustling and engaging in organized crime. Three ranch hands were arrested as well; none of the four men has yet been dictated. Jones, who is running unopposed this fall, declined to comment. His attorney didn’t return calls.
Some of the politics playing out now date back to long-standing bitter rivalries between the Joneses and other prominent families. Adding to the tensions, newer residents seen as “outsiders” have been agitating for changes in how the county is run. And the politics have turned personal: Members of the Jones family are running against each other for county clerk.
Top elected official in Loving County was charged with cattle theft
- Judge Skeet Jones, the scion of a powerful ranching family, was arrested in May after a yearlong investigation.
- He was charged with livestock theft and engaging in criminal activity, accused of gathering up and selling stray cattle.
- Authorities said the investigation was ongoing.
“Everybody says politics is a blood sport,” said Steve Simonsen, the county attorney. “Well, here it is.”
‘That’s gonna weed out some voters’
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Republican from Harris County who sponsored SB 1111, said the law’s intent was simple: “to get people to register where they live.” But it was also limited in scope.
Bettencourt introduced the legislation after he said he learned that about 4,800 voters in Harris County had registered to vote using UPS store PO boxes as their 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 inhabits the place at the time of designation and intends to remain.”
When Busse read the law, he thought, “Well, that’s gonna weed out some voters in the county, because you can’t continue to claim a residence in another city and then come out here and vote,” he said.
But he had questions about how to enforce the new law as voter registrar, so he called up the Texas secretary of state’s office and spoke with Keith Ingram, the Elections Division director. Ingram’s office fields complaints about election law violations and can refer them to the attorney general’s office for criminal prosecution. Punishment is rare: The attorney general’s office has successfully prosecuted only about 155 people for election fraud offenses since 2005.
Ingram told NBC News that Busse asked about a few scenarios in Loving County, including a derelict mobile home “that nobody lives at, nobody visits, doesn’t have 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 inhabit their mobile home, they shouldn’t be allowed to use it for voter registration.”
Busse also asked Ingram about voters he sees only once or twice a year. Ingram’s answer wasn’t what Busse expected. While the new law requires people to inhabit the homes where they registered to vote, it also still includes an earlier provision that allows people to register at homes that they “intend to return to,” 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, arguably, they inhabit that location, and they can claim it as a residence.”
Busse said he heard a key word in Ingram’s explanation — “arguably” — and concluded that the law isn’t entirely clear.
Ingram also told Busse that someone who largely lives elsewhere for decades could consider that a “temporary absence.”
“’Temporary’ can be the 30 years of my legal career if I intend to retire back where I grew up,” he said. “And I go visit a week every summer or a week in the fall, every year. Then I think that ‘temporary’ is in the eyes of the beholder at that point.”
Ingram said that if a close election resulted in a short challenge, it would be up to a judge to decide whether individual voters met residency requirements.
Otherwise, Busse’s power as registrar was limited, Ingram told him.
After the March primary election, Busse called Ingram back, frustrated. The commissioner’s race in Busse’s district, Precinct 4, had come down to an 8-5 vote.
“Three of the votes that were 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. “That’s a situation where my vote did not count,” he said.
Ingram said there was no way to challenge the election results short of a lawsuit filed in District Court.
But there was one thing Busse could do: send out voter registration address confirmation cards. If voters don’t respond within 30 days, they are placed on “suspense,” which means they can’t vote again without making sworn statements about their residences. Someone who lies on the card can be prosecuted for making a false statement (a misdemeanor) and wearing to it under oath (a felony). The maximum sentence for the misdemeanor is up to a year in jail; the felony ranges up to two years.
In June, Busse said he and a member of the voter registrar staff drew up a list of everyone on the voter rolls they suspected doesn’t actually live in Loving County. They looked at voters who used post office boxes in other places. They also relied on their own “personal knowledge” of where people actually live and work, Busse said. The 44 cards they sent out are now trickling back into the office.