One-day trial focused on five voters

Christopher Maher, Alice Echo-News Journal

Following a one-day trial Friday, the decision on whether a new election will be held in the race for Pct. 3 Jim Wells County Commissioner now rests in the hands of visiting District Judge Nelva Gonzales-Ramos, who is expected to make a ruling next week.

The final election results for the March 4 Primary in that race left incumbent Commissioner Oswald "Wally" Alanis with 990 votes, two short of the declared winner, J.C. Perez III. Alanis then filed a contest of the election in district court, alleging that mistakes were made by the election administrator that prevented individuals from voting for him.

Taking the stand Friday, Alanis focused his testimony on five voters who he said were prevented from casting a vote for him.

Two of those voters, Jesus and Rebecca Hernandez, testified they have lived at their residence on County Road 308 since 1982, and have always voted in Precinct 3. Both said that when they attempted to vote for Alanis during early voting for the March 4 Primary, they were informed they were not in the system of registered voters.

Asked about those two voters on the stand, JWC Elections Administrator Pearlie Jo Valadez said the Hernandezes had been removed from the list of registered voters during a routine "purge" ordered by the Texas Secretary of State.

Voters who do not vote in at least two consecutive general elections or who make no attempt to update address information are removed from the system by the Secretary of State, Valadez said.

In the case of the Hernandezes, changes to their County Road 308 address mandated by 911 administrators put them on a "suspended" list at some point after the last time they voted in November 2004.

When the elections office received several returned pieces of mail and the Hernandezes made no attempt to confirm their address, they were purged from the system in December 2006, Valadez said.

The third voter to take the stand Friday was Juan Mata, an employee of Alanis'.

Mata, speaking through an interpreter, initially said he attempted to vote at Alice High School and was told he could not vote, and that he had to re-register.

Cross-examination focused on a written statement Mata admitted was written by his supervisor in which he claimed he had attempted to vote at the Jim Wells County Courthouse and was denied.

Asked about Mata's case on the stand, Valadez said he had been purged from the system in November 2006, after his voter registration card for 2004-2005 was returned by the post office.

Also taking the stand Friday was Laura Hatton, a resident of County Road 308. Hatton said she went to early voting with the intention of voting for Alanis.

While driving home after voting, however, she realized the ballot she cast had not included Alanis' name. Hatton later learned the voter registration card she had recently received had placed her in Precinct 2, although her address had not changed.

When she went to vote, she was given a ballot for Precinct 2, which she filled out and submitted without realizing the error.

"After 30 years, I never expected it to change," Hatton said Friday.

Valadez testified Friday that at some point during early voting for the March 4 Primary she was informed that a number of individuals on County Road 308 who were traditionally placed in Precinct 3 had been incorrectly reassigned to Precinct Two.

Phil Westergren, the attorney for Alanis, told Valadez he believed more than 30 voters on County Road 308 had been affected by the error, but Valadez said she could not confirm that number.

Once the error was discovered, Valadez said, corrections were made to the voter rolls so that any individuals from County Road 308 who attempted to vote would be provided a ballot for the correct precinct.

Hatton, however, voted prior to the discovery of the error, Valadez said. Because the elections officials were not aware of the error at the time she voted, and because Hatton did not inform the officials of her correct precinct when she was given an incorrect ballot, her Precinct 2 ballot was submitted.

The only other voter to testify Friday was Jesus H. Garcia, a part-time employee of Alanis' who said he also was not allowed to vote in Precinct 3 during the March Primary.

On the stand, Valadez admitted she discovered that an error occurred several years ago in processing Garcia's address change mandated by the 911 administrator, leaving Garcia incorrectly placed in Precinct 2. As a result of that error, Garcia voted in Precinct 2 in the March 4 Primary and the Nov. 7, 2006 general election, Valadez said.

In his closing argument Friday, Westergren asked the judge to overturn the results of the March 4 election and to name Alanis the winner, or to throw out the results and call for a new election.

"The fact remains that people who wanted to vote for Alanis were not permitted to do so," Westergren said. "To rule any other way is just disenfranchising them from voting for the person they wanted to vote for."

Jaime Garza, the attorney for Perez, told the judge any errors that were made could have been corrected if the voters had made greater efforts to verify their information with the elections administrator.

"The true sincerity of a voter's desire to vote for a candidate should be shown on election day, not the Monday after," Garza said. "If it was so important for these voters to vote for Alanis, they should have expressed that at the ballot box."

Following testimony and closing arguments Friday, Judge Gonzales-Ramos told attorneys she would accept additional briefs on the case through Tuesday, with a ruling to follow later this week.