Judgment pending in Starr election contest

RIO GRANDE CITY — It’s now a waiting game in the election contest to two primary races as a judge is expected to take a few days to decide whether or not to call for a new election.

Closing arguments were made Friday by the attorney representing Leticia “Letty” Garza Galvan and Martie Garcia Vela, the candidates contesting the election results, and the attorneys for County Judge Eloy Vera and Baldemar Garza, the contestees.

Vera and Garza were declared the winners of their respective primary races for county judge and district judge in March, the results of which are now being challenged on the basis of alleged irregularities with mail-in ballots, in-person voting and failure to properly secure the ballot boxes.

In his closing argument on behalf of Garza Galvan and Garcia Vela, attorney Jerad Najvar argued that illegal votes were counted.

He counted about 1,200 times that a voter received assistance, but said there were no records of which voters received assistance or which assistant was helping that voter.

“There’s no way to figure out which votes were legally cast by voters who were entitled to receive assistance at the polls,” he said. “The failure to keep those kinds of records that allow the court and the public to audit the election, investigate whether votes were illegally cast or not, is enough to invalidate the election.”

He also noted there was testimony of accepted mail-in ballots that were in carrier envelopes that did not have a postmark on them and pointed out there were 147 mail-in ballots rejected by the ballot board.

“Even though voting by mail is not a fundamental right, once you’re granted that right, once there is a process of voting by mail, you have (the right) to an administrative hearing of some kind before your ballot is just thrown out and you’re disenfranchised,” Najvar said.

He also argued that there was, at minimum, a failure to follow proper procedures to secure the ballot boxes. One of the election judges testified earlier in the day that an emergency flap to a box came open and he was unable to properly lock it the rest of that day.

Najvar also argued that county employees should not have been eligible to serve on the Early Voting Ballot Board because they are subordinate to Vera, the current county judge.

However, Vera’s attorney, Carlos Escobar, argued the judge is not the direct supervisor of county employees outside of the county judge’s office, and does not have the authority to fire or hire them.

In regard to the voters who received assistance, Escobar cited case law that stated non-compliance to strict requirements of the election code would undermine the outcome of an election.

“If there is no remedy to the violation that Mr. Najvar is asserting, then this court does not have the statutory authority to invalidate these 1,200 votes,” Escobar said.

“Even if he establishes that this was an incompetently run election, it doesn’t invalidate the results of that election unless he can specifically say, under the election code, how votes those votes are supposed to be invalidated,” Escobar said.

Regarding the lack of postage for some mail-in ballots, Escobar said section 86.006 of the Texas Election Code does not mention invalidating a vote for lack of postmark but only states the ballot must be delivered by mail.

“(The statute) just says delivery by mail and there’s testimony in this case that establishes that is what happened despite this postage situation,” he said.

Turning to the ballot box security, the attorney said that despite issues with an emergency flap, all the votes cast were accounted for.

“Each one of these ballot boxes were balanced and equalized by every election judge in the contest,” he said. “There was never a time when one particular election judge wasn’t able to balance out the number of ballots in each one of these boxes; everything was accounted for.”

Before the parties were dismissed, Judge Joel Johnson emerged from behind the bench to shake hands with the attorneys and the four candidates, thanking them for their hard work.

He also turned to the audience in the gallery and praised them for caring about the democratic process.

After noting Socrates’ views on government and lamenting that perhaps our methods of determining justice are not much better than they were during the philosopher’s time, Johnson urged both parties to not allow politics to tear them apart.

“We have more that holds us together than divides us,” Johnson said.