The Starr County election contest was struck down by the Fourth Court of Appeals, ending the legal battle over the Democratic March primary election. However, despite upholding the election results, the court acknowledged some votes cast were illegal.
The appellate court’s ruling early Wednesday morning favored Starr County Judge Eloy Vera and Baldemar “Balde” Garza who were announced the winners of the Starr County Judge’s race and the 229th district court race, respectively.
Their opponents, Leticia “Letty” Garza Galvan and Martie Garcia Vela, filed an election contest in April alleging illegal assistance at polling places, the acceptance of invalid mail-in ballots, and a failure to secure the ballot boxes among other claims.
Following a five-day trial, visiting Judge Joel Johnson ruled against Garza Galvan and Garcia Vela in May. They subsequently filed the appeal later that month.
In the opinion, the appellate court reiterated that Garza Galvan and Garcia Vela had to prove through clear and convincing evidence that voting irregularities affected the outcome.
The court acknowledged, “‘an election contestant’s burden is a heavy one, and the declared results will be upheld in all cases except when there is clear and convincing evidence of an erroneous result.’”
In trying to prove that, attorney Jerad Najvar, on behalf of Garza Galvan and Garcia Vela, pointed to 1,200 times that a voter received assistance, but the assister did not record their name and address next to that voter on the poll list, leaving no record of which voters received assistance or which assistant was helping that voter.
The appellate court pointed out that the Texas Legislature did not state that that made the ballot invalid.
During the trial in Starr County in April, poll watchers had testified to witnessing questionable thing, namely people assisting voters who did not appear to need help, sometimes even filling out the entire ballot for the voters without letting them know of their options.
The court stated the trial court judge could have simply believed the other witnesses who testified seeing nothing irregular at the polling sites.
“Because we defer to the trial court’s assessment of the credibility of the witnesses, we hold the trial court did not abuse its discretion in implicitly finding improper assistance was not provided,” the opinion read.
However, the appellate court did concede that some illegal votes were cast.
A woman who assisted with mail-in ballots, Francisca Mendoza, said she had helped about 50 voters with the mail-in ballots, though Najvar argued her information did not appear on any of the carrier envelopes, which is required by the Texas Election Code.
That, however, was not enough to require a new election.
“The evidence established Mendoza only assisted 50 voters,” the opinion stated. “Because Vera and Garza won their elections by 159 and 106 votes, respectively, Galvan and Vela could not establish the 50 invalid votes materially affected the outcome of the election.”
Carlos Escobar, the attorney for Vera and Garza, said he disagreed with the appellate court on this point, arguing that Najvar did not really prove that no envelopes had Mendoza’s information on them.
Whether proof was presented or not, the brief filed by Najvar unequivocally stated that Mendoza’s name, address, and signature does not appear on a single carrier envelope received by the elections department.
Aside from that point, Escobar said his clients were pleased with the outcome of the appeal.
“They’re very grateful and thankful to their supporters,” Escobar said.
Najvar, on the other hand, was disappointed with the result and said he believed the court could have called for a new election had they examined all the evidence.
“They basically reiterated that they were constrained by the standard of review and the trial judge’s findings,” Najvar said, adding that he believed they were “too loose” with their review of the evidence.
In the end, Najvar said they were glad they filed the contest because it had to be done.
“All these undisputed facts on the record are real, these things happen,” he said. “These voters need protection under these laws and I’m just disappointed that the court did not issue a strong precedent that would enforce them.”