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Concerned about mail-in ballots, Hidalgo ISD candidate may file election contest

Correction: The article “Concerned about mail-in ballots, Hidalgo ISD candidate may file election contest” misstated the year in which the Hidalgo City Council runoff election took place. It was June 2016, not June 2017.

After mail-in ballots cost him a seat on the Hidalgo school board, Mentor Cantu may file an election contest.

Voters who visited the polls supported Cantu by razor-thin margins — nearly 52 percent of people who voted early and about 51 percent of people who voted on Election Day, according to results published by the Hidalgo County Elections Department. About 79 percent of people who voted by mail, though, supported incumbent school board Trustee Ben Arjona.

hidalgo isdArjona won by 43 votes.

“We’re 110 percent sure: if we go to court, we’ll prove fraud,” Cantu said. “But it’ll take $35,000 to $40,000 to do that.”

The campaign pitted Cantu, a Pharr firefighter and former school board trustee, against Arjona, the San Juan city manager.

Cantu ran with former school board trustees Carlos Cardoza and Yesenia Ayala, the daughter of Norteño legend Ramon Ayala. Arjona ran with Rodolfo F. Franz, the son of Hidalgo power broker Rudy Franz, and Mentor Alejandro Cavazos.

The majority of people who cast ballots during early voting and on Election Day supported Cantu, Cardoza and Ayala, according to results published by Hidalgo County.

Arjona, Franz and Cavazos, however, won a lopsided majority of the mail-in ballots.

Franz won nearly 81 percent of the mail-in ballots.

Cavazos won nearly 75 percent. And Arjona won 79 percent.

Cardoza and Ayala won seats on the school board despite the mail-in ballots. Cantu narrowly lost.

Candidates for the Valley View school board, which represents the northeast part of Hidalgo, confronted a similar situation.

“Their motive is: If we commit fraud, they don’t have the money to take us to court, so we win,” Cantu said, adding that he plans to contest the election after the school board canvasses the results.

Mildred Escobedo Flores, who founded Election Integrity Advocates, a non-partisan organization that fights voter fraud, said she blames Ben and Sylvia Arjona for the mail-in ballot anomaly.

“And let’s not forget that his wife was arrested,” Escobedo Flores said.

Sylvia Arjona collected mail-in ballots during the June 2016 Hidalgo City Council runoff election.

The losing candidate, Gilberto Perez Jr., filed a lawsuit against the winner, City Councilman Oziel Treviño.

When the case went to trial, Sylvia Arjona testified that she collected dozens of mail-in ballots for the Treviño campaign.

“Arjona testified that with their permission, she assisted more than fifty voters (sic) fill out a mail-in ballot, and also took care of mailing the ballots for them,” according to the memorandum opinion issued by the 13th Court of Appeals. “The record reveals that she assisted a total of sixty mail-in voters.”

Not all the voters wanted help.

“Voter Ventura Molano testified that he voted by mail with Arjona’s assistance. Molano testified that he never called for Arjona to come to his house, but rather that she showed up uninvited one day and assisted him in filling out his ballot,” according to the memorandum opinion. “Molano testified that Arjona told him to vote for Treviño, and he followed her recommendation.”

Investigators charged Sylvia Arjona with four counts of providing unlawful assistance to a voter, a Class A misdemeanor.

“The charges that Mrs. Arjona has been accused of — she’s not guilty,” said attorney Ben Castillo, who represented Sylvia Arjona after prosecutors filed the charges in June. “She didn’t do any of the things that they’re alleging that she did. And she intends to fight to clear her name.”

Attorney Michael R. Salinas, who took over the case, said Sylvia Arjona spoke with voters but didn’t handle any mail-in ballots during the November 2018 election.

“She didn’t do not one single one of them,” Ben Arjona said.

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