Amid a statewide campaign to halt voter fraud, a 2020 South Texas school board election has been overturned due to “repeated mistakes” by local elections officials that allowed illegal votes to be counted.

A court found “clear and convincing evidence” that more illegal votes were cast in the November 2020 Brownsville ISD school board election than the margin of victory.

Marisa Leal, who was originally declared the winner by one vote, contested the results after a recount found her opponent, incumbent Minerva Peña, won by eight votes.

Following a hearing last month, visiting District Judge Joel Johnson found at least 24 illegal votes were cast in the election—more than enough to invalidate the election results.

Among the illegal votes were 16 mail-in ballots cast in the names of people who were all registered at the address of an uninhabited commercial warehouse.

The Cameron County Elections Administrator’s office failed to verify the address was a valid residence either when registering the voters or accepting their mail-ballot applications, even though court documents said “a number” of other ballot requests also listed the same address.

When the 16 illegally registered voters returned their marked ballots to the elections office, the ballot board accepted them and the votes were counted.

“Because of these repeated mistakes in allowing for these mail ballots that had been illegally cast to be counted, it is impossible to determine which races listed in the General Election ballot these voters actually voted in and who these voters voted for,” Judge Johnson, who was assigned to the case from another district, wrote in his findings.

It’s also impossible to determine who actually marked the illegal ballots, since the address on them was false and no voter ID number was required on the applications or ballots (though last year’s election integrity law Senate Bill 1 now requires ID numbers on mail ballots).

“Unquestionably the votes cast by these 16 voters were illegal and not countable,” Johnson concluded.

In addition, three voters testified (and polling place documents confirmed) they were assisted when voting at the polls in the school board election, even though they weren’t eligible to receive assistance. Two other voters had family members mark their ballots or tell them how to vote, and three mail ballots were returned without a signature on the carrier envelope, making them all not countable.

Because clear and convincing evidence showed the number of illegal votes cast in the election far exceeded the number of votes necessary to change the outcome, the court declared the contest void and ordered a new election between Leal and Peña.

Curiously, Leal’s lawyer is Gilberto Hinojosa, who in the past has defended candidates against voter fraud charges. The attorney is also chairman of the Texas Democrat Party, which denies voter fraud is a problem and opposes voter ID and other ballot security measures.

Peña, who was first elected in 2008, has continued to serve on the school board throughout the election contest. Last October, she was arrested and charged with nepotism for allegedly using her position to get her daughter-in-law a teaching job with the district.

The do-over election for Brownsville ISD’s Place 6 seat is set for May 7.

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.