Two South Texas candidates are challenging the results of their Democratic Party primary races, alleging voter fraud and serious administrative errors by Starr County election officials.

Leticia “Letty” Garza Galvan and Martie Garcia Vela filed their election contest in Starr County on April 6.

Galvan ran for County Judge against incumbent Eloy Vera in the March 6 Democrat primary. Following a recount in the close race, Vera was declared the winner by a 159-vote margin – just over one percent of the total votes cast.

Garcia Vela ran against former Rio Grande City mayor Baldemar “Balde” Garza for the 229th District Court, which serves Starr, Duval, and Jim Hogg counties. A recount showed Garza won by 106 votes – a margin just over half a percent. But Garcia Vela actually won more votes than Garza in Duval and Jim Hogg, while Garza’s margin of victory in Starr was 2.5 percent.

Contestants’ attorney Jerad Najvar says the election “was tainted with irregularities from the beginning, as election officials failed to send mail ballots timely, or at all, to many voters.”

Election officials reported that 2,067 mail-in ballots were sent to voters, but only 1,089 ballots were returned. The lawsuit says the county’s 53-percent ballot return rate is “irregular, and indicative of the maladministration of the ballot by mail system by elections officials:”

“The official records thus far received by contestants are in a shambles and rife with factual errors regarding when ballot by mail applications were received, when ballots were purportedly mailed to voters, and when and how they were received by election officials.”

The contest alleges that dozens, if not hundreds, of mail ballots were requested but not sent, while others were sent after the statutory deadline, “preventing legal voters from voting.”

Galvan and Garcia Vela also claim evidence of voter fraud in both voting by mail and in-person voting.

The contestants allege mail ballots were illegally harvested by politiqueras working on behalf of Vera and Garza, with some preying on voters they knew depend on county assistance.

“We know that at least six individuals collecting mail ballots and assisting voters at the polls on behalf of our opponents were engaged in fraud, including voting ballots without instruction from the voters,” said Najvar.

The contest also alleges that multiple voters were illegally assisted at the polls, including voters who weren’t eligible for or didn’t ask for assistance. But election officials’ failure to keep voting proper records “makes it impossible to know how many and which voters were assisted, and by whom.”

The county elections office is already embroiled in a federal lawsuit over officials’ failure to maintain accurate voter rolls. The lawsuit, filed by the Public Interest Legal Foundation on behalf of the American Civil Rights Union, alleges that Starr County’s voter rolls “contain more voters registered to vote than there are citizens eligible to vote residing in the county.” That includes deceased voters, ineligible felons, and non-citizens – all of which have been found to have registered and cast ballots in the county.

The recount process also “revealed the abject failure of election officials to follow basic security procedures” regarding ballot boxes and election materials, Najvar says. Officials failed to properly secure or label multiple ballot boxes, the suit contends, and there is evidence suggesting that two ballot boxes were stuffed.

But the lawsuit goes further, claiming that some of the official errors and procedural violations were intentional, and that fraudulent activity was overlooked by District Attorney Omar Escobar if it benefitted the contestees – despite the DA’s high-profile voter fraud crackdown that has resulted in seven arrests.

According to the petition:

“[T]hese pervasive violations of simple statutory deadlines and recordkeeping requirements were no accident, but a scheme to reject or divert those applications and mail-in ballots from voters Contestees and their associates believed to be supportive of Contestants. Contestees and well-placed supporters and subordinates responsible for administering the mail ballot system knew how to identify ballots likely to be supportive of contestants, and thwarted such voters, e.g., by “losing” those applications or sending the ballots to such voters late, in an attempt to thwart the exercise of the franchise by such voters.”

“The brazen acts of fraud we are hearing about, perpetrated by certain individuals collecting votes for Eloy Vera and Baldemar Garza, suggest that they felt they could operate with impunity, despite DA Escobar’s harassment directed at the campaigns of people Escobar opposed,” Najvar said.

The suit also claims that county and municipal resources were used to obtain or influence votes in the election, that county officials including Vera set voting locations and hours to benefit the contestees, and that the Early Voting Ballot Board operated with ineligible members and contrary to lawful procedures.

Garza and Vera have denied participating in or witnessing any wrongdoing in the election.

“Contesting an election is not a step to be taken lightly,” said Najvar, “but there are serious issues here, and the people of Starr County deserve to have confidence that their elections are free and fair.”

“The beautiful thing about election contests is that it allows private citizens to enforce the law even when law enforcement is unwilling or unable to administer justice evenhandedly.”

Galvan and Garcia Vela are requesting a hearing to review the evidence and determine who really won the races, or to declare the elections void and order a new Democrat primary election for the offices.

Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.