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Formal election review in motion

Profile image for By Britney Tabor
By Britney Tabor

Denton County Judge Mary Horn submitted a letter Tuesday to the head of elections with the Texas Secretary of State’s office requesting a formal review of processes the county used in its Nov. 8 general election.

The letter, which was approved unanimously by county commissioners earlier Tuesday, asks office of elections director Keith Ingram to conduct a review in early January. Additionally, it specifies that the county will make elections personnel and documents readily available for the review.

A duplicate of the letter is being forwarded to the Denton County Elections Commission and U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Voting Section.

The letter comes on the heels of a rash of problems last month that plagued Denton County elections, tainted the public’s trust in the elections process and resulted in the former elections administrator being forced to retire and two other elections employees being fired “for failure to correctly and accurately carry out their duties,” Horn wrote in a social media statement recently.

Among the problems were multiple equipment glitches, inaccurate signs at polling places specifying the types of identification needed to cast ballots, ballots delivered to wrong precincts, counted paper ballots being bundled with ballots not counted and a court-ordered retabulation of election returns followed by an additional recalculation of votes.

While vote totals changed each time returns were counted, the outcomes of the races did not.

“As I am a sure you are aware, Denton County Elections experienced numerous difficulties during the November 8, 2016 general election,” Horn wrote. “To date we have taken several steps to [ensure] that nothing of a similar nature occurs in the future.

“The Denton County Commissioners Court believes that a report from a neutral expert would be beneficial in helping to identify where the process broke down.”

Horn said while she doesn’t foresee there being a cost for the independent review, the county would be “more than willing to cover” expenses through the elections budget.

“I don’t anticipate that it will, and if it does, I think it will be minimal,” she said of any cost to the county.

Commissioners anticipate once a review is conducted, members will receive an update in open court.

“The elections Secretary of State’s office is not here to count ballots,” Horn said prior to the commissioners’ vote. “They’re here to review the whole process — the good, the bad and the ugly and help us.

“We think we know, but we want to know exactly what went wrong, what should be changed in the future, the best practices ... as far as conducting an election. That’s where we want to go with this. Hopefully at the end of the day, that’s where we end up.”

County resident Candace Valenzuela spoke before the Commissioners Court on Tuesday about her and her husband’s experiences voting last month. She said on the day her husband went to vote, there were issues with the “identification checkers” and he spent two hours attempting to vote.

She said she supports the independent review and hopes it brings about funding to update the county’s elections machines as well as bring in some more equipment for checking IDs.

“My hope is that we’ll take this seriously and that we’ll, I hope, expedite the process of that,” she said.

Horn said machines are the least of the county’s issues, and the type of training those working the elections received is an issue.

County officials say it’s too soon to say whether any other elections employees will be held accountable as a result of election processes not followed.

Frank Phillips, the newly hired county elections administrator, said he favors the state conducting an independent review.

“I’m glad they moved forward on that request, and I’m looking forward to hearing back from the secretary of state on how soon they can start this process,” he said. “The sooner, the better.”

Kurt Hyde of Corinth, who spoke publicly about the Commissioners’ Court intent to have the state conduct an independent review, requested the court involve Denton County citizens in the review process and not in a limited manner. Additionally, he volunteered to take part.

“I believe that we should have some direct citizen involvement, not just involvement by government employees,” Hyde told commissioners.

Commissioner Andy Eads said the state potentially conducting an independent review of election processes does not exclude public involvement but is a response to the public’s inquiries to have an outside entity look into what happened with last month’s election.

Eads said he’s all for public involvement.

“I think today is the very first step,” he said Tuesday. “I don’t think anyone is being excluded. This is the very first step.”

The county intends to release an email address sometime this week on the website for Denton County (www.dentoncounty.com) and the Denton County Elections Administration (www.votedenton.com), where residents can submit any issues they had during last month’s general election. Residents can also visit http://bit.ly/2hsQYt7.

Those submissions will be shared with the Secretary of State’s office, Phillips said.

The Commissioner’s Court next meeting is at 2 p.m. Jan. 1 at the Courthouse on the Square, 110 W. Hickory St., to swear in recently elected officials.

BRITNEY TABOR can be reached at 940-566-6876 and via Twitter at @BritneyTabor.