A Liberty County commissioners race has been voided after at least 22 voters were found to have errantly cast ballots in the wrong precinct.
The GOP primary for the Precinct 4 commissioner position was decided by five votes on March 1 in the two-way race.
Incumbent Leon Wilson, who found himself on the winning end of the minuscule margin, must face challenger Craig McNair, a former Liberty County judge, again on May 24 because of the irregularities found in the hearing’s discovery.
“Because the Court finds that it cannot ascertain the true outcome of this particular race, Section 221.012 of the Texas Election Code requires this Court to declare this specific election to be void,” reads the April 22 order from Judge Michael Mayes in the 253rd District Court for the State of Texas.
“Contestant showed by clear and convincing evidence that more than five voters who vote[d] in this race were not eligible to vote in this race because their residence is outside the boundaries of Commissioner Precinct 4.”
To eliminate any potential conflict of interest by local judges, Mayes was brought in to hear the case from Montgomery County.
The issue stems from redistricting, which saw the commission precinct lines redrawn.
McNair’s petition was filed on March 28, three days after state election law’s allotted 15 days after results are finalized to contest an election. Wilson motioned for the court to dismiss the appeal on those grounds, a request not accorded by the visiting judge because certain requirements for starting that 15-day clock were not met by the county.
Thirty-five voters were subpoenaed in the case, 22 of which testified they voted in Precinct 4 when they were drawn outside the district.
Lee Chambers — the Liberty County clerk — said the issue was a confluence of difficult circumstances that caused mistakes.
The delay of the 2020 Census caused a tighter-than-expected window for all jurisdictions in Texas to redraw their lines based on new population numbers. The Houston exurb’s population grew 21 percent. This caused the two precincts encompassing Cleveland and Dayton to shrink geographically and the two districts on the county’s east side to enlarge in the new maps.
Additionally, the secretary of state’s voter registration system, according to Chambers, is complicated and error-prone — something that Chambers said caused issues across the state. She added that the state is currently replacing it with a more efficient and user-friendly system.
And yet another curveball was thrown at the Liberty County elections department when its chief voter registrar became severely ill, removing her expertise on the system from the situation.
Human error accentuated by a condensed timeline and a thin-margined result shrouded the contest with enough uncertainty that it required a redo.
Currently, the elections administration office is combing through all voter files in Precinct 4 to ensure each is in the correct post-redistricting precinct for the runoff.
“I think the judge was right to order a do-over,” Chambers said. “These are people, and it’s human beings running this — mistakes happen.”
Klint Bush, the county’s elections administrator, told The Texan, “The voter roll is never perfect, and it will never be perfect — that’s why we have provisional ballots and the early vote board, to fill these holes where they appear.”
According to Bush, the office has identified 63 voters errantly in Precinct 4 who shouldn’t be after redistricting, including the 22 identified through the lawsuit. Bush said that before the election, the county spent thousands of dollars advertising the redistricting change, including in the county’s newspapers, asking voters to ensure they’re registered in the correct precinct.
But some still slipped through the cracks, enough to throw this one race into question. None of the other local races finished within a 150-vote margin.
Texas’ election system is run from the bottom up, with the counties running most of the electoral functions, including monitoring the voter rolls for additions and subtractions. A spokesman for the Texas Secretary of State’s (SOS) Office told The Texan, “Our office stands ready to assist the County Clerk by providing the official list of registered voters in the new Precinct 4 boundaries for purposes of the audit.”
A somewhat similar instance, caused by redistricting, occurred in Bell County last week concerning the Salado Library District.
“Usually the issues are quickly rectified, but if the race is close, it could easily become an election contest that is then adjudicated in a Texas district court,” the SOS spokesman added.
“In this case it wasn’t intentional,” Chambers added. “The candidates want to make it intentional, but it was not.”
Shortly after the court’s decision, Wilson said on Facebook, “If your voice and vote are discarded and trashed in front of your face[,] imagine what would happen behind your back!”
Questioning whether the issue would be resolved, McNair told The Texan, “As we Republicans yell about election integrity, we have Republicans doing it to Republicans.”
“It is time for true conservative values that will root out corruption, ensure our elections are safe and secure and restore integrity to Liberty County,” he said in a Facebook post after the judge’s decision was announced.
A no-holds-barred approach between the candidates is gleaned even in the court filings. In another filing by Wilson, he alleges that McNair misrepresented himself when discovering voters who cast ballots in the wrong precinct.
“It appears, from the testimony of at least two voters, that when McNair visited voters to ask about the claimed redistricting problems and identify witnesses to use in his petition, he falsely presented himself as law enforcement or another county employee,” reads the filing.
“McNair also claimed that he was ‘hired by the County.’ Specifically, McNair claimed, he was representing ‘Liberty County Zoning and Redistricting.’ No such body or position exists.”
McNair denied these accusations, and they did not factor into the judge’s decision. McNair further added that a witness testified during the trial that they were mistaken.
“There is no conspiracy, everyone is doing their jobs as best a human can do it, ” Liberty County GOP Chair Emily Cook told The Texan.
“The Liberty County Republican Party wants every eligible voter to have their vote count. If I didn’t trust the elections administration, I wouldn’t contract them to run the election.”
“I seriously do not know what more we could have done to mitigate that,” Bush concluded. “This is just a nasty, close race.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to add details about the allegation made against McNair in court.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.