Arguments unsealed in Starr election contest appeal

In a case challenging the March Democratic Primary election results in Starr County, a lawyer said in a filing that the voting was tainted by violations at all levels of the process.

The election contest filed challenging the results of the March Democratic Primary is currently under appeal at the Fourth Court of Appeals.

The appeal is seeking to overturn the decision in May by the trial court in Rio Grande City that reaffirmed the election results.

The candidates who filed the election contest — Leticia “Letty” Garza Galvan and Martie Garcia Vela who ran for Starr County judge and 229th state district court judge, respectively — allege fraudulent activity during the elections in favor of their opponents Starr County Judge Eloy Vera and Baldemar “Balde” Garza.

A brief filed by Jerad Najvar, attorney for Garza Galvan and Garcia Vela, was unsealed by the appellate court this week. In it, Najvar argues why the trial court erred in not calling for a new election.

“The March 2018 Democratic Primary elections in Starr County were tainted by systematic and inexcusable violations of the most basic Election Code provisions,” the brief stated, “touching all phases of the election, and were punctuated by actual and constructive fraud.”

Among the alleged violations noted in the brief are illegal assistance at polling places and a failure to secure the ballot boxes.

In regard to illegal assistance, the refer to the testimony of a poll watcher who said more than half of the voters who received vehicle assistance were nudged by the person they came with to “remind” the clerk that they needed assistance.

However, in the opposing brief filed on behalf of Vera and Garza, their attorney, Carlos Escobar, argued that poll worker had no personal knowledge of whether those voters were disabled or otherwise required assistance or how they voted.

One curbside voter testified during the trial about being taken in a group by a woman to go vote. Under questioning, the voter said he recalled signing a document but he couldn’t be sure if he voted or not as he never filled out a ballot. He testified that the woman who brought them to the polling site simply left the car and, after some time, returned and they left. The voter roster, however, showed that he did cast a ballot on Feb. 22 in Roma.

The opposition argued that the voter’s testimony was “confusing and unclear” and proved nothing.

Another poll watcher testified about witnessing an elderly man tell the election clerk he would be voting Republican but the assistant accompanying him said, “No Panchito, you are not voting Republican, you are voting Democrat.”

The poll watcher testified that said she had expressed concern to the presiding judge about the incident but the judge told her to “back off,” according to the brief. She further testified that the voter then told the assistant to fill out the ballot because he didn’t know who she wanted him to vote for.

Escobar, the attorney for Vera and Garza, dismissed the testimony about the incident as hearsay.

With respect to the security of the ballot boxes, the plaintiffs argue they weren’t secured correctly as the numbers on the seals that are used to secure the equipment were not always recorded and a sheriff’s deputy testified that one of the ballot boxes was not sealed properly.

They also claim the ballot box from the courthouse site contained a stack of eight ballots stuck together, in sequential order, that were not signed by the election judge and “undisputed testimony established that they all contained votes for Eloy Vera and Baldemar Garza.”

Similarly, the election day box from the El Sauz location had only 15 ballots that were also stuck together, in sequential order and without signatures from the election judge. Those were also for Vera and Garza.

In response to security, Escobar argued the ballot boxes were kept in secure rooms only accessible to the elections administrator and dismissed the claims about the stacks of ballots because they came from Garza Galvan and Garcia Vela’s own testimony.

In the trial court ruling, visiting Judge Joel Johnson ruled that Najvar, on behalf of Garza Galvan and Garcia Vela, failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the final canvass of the votes in both races were not the true outcomes.

The appeals court is expected to issue a ruling later this week.