A candidate who claims politiqueras manipulated mail-in ballots during the Hidalgo Independent School District election will take his case to trial May 13.
Mentor Cantu, a Pharr firefighter, filed the lawsuit against his opponent, San Juan City Manager Ben Arjona, last year. Both men campaigned for the Hidalgo school board in November 2018, vying to represent Place 5.
Cantu received a razor-thin majority of ballots cast on Election Day and during early voting. Arjona, however, won big among people who cast mail-in ballots, which allowed him to claim a narrow 43-vote victory.
“What we saw was — which is par for the course for city of Hidalgo elections, whether it is the school board or the city or the adjacent school district, Valley View — it’s the same pattern,” said attorney Gilberto Hinojosa, who represents Cantu. “Which is a lot of mail-in ballots that were submitted by people who don’t live where they say they live. Ballots were picked up and turned in by someone that did not sign the carrier envelope.”
State District Judge Federico “Fred” Hinojosa Jr. will preside over the trial.
Gilberto Hinojosa said he plans to call 75 to 100 witnesses. Testimony will last three or four days, depending on how many people actually respond to subpoenas.
The trial will pit Gilberto Hinojosa against attorney Ric Gonzalez, who represents Arjona. They’ve already litigated two Hidalgo election contests since 2016.
Both attorneys frequently hear testimony about voters who request assistance at the polls but don’t actually need any help.
“People with college degrees who were assisted,” Hinojosa said. “People who have employments that require you to read and write in the English language were assisted.”
They also hear about people who cast ballots in Hidalgo but don’t actually live within city limits.
“For example, there were a lot of people who live in certain apartments owned by certain people,” Gilberto Hinojosa said. “They don’t live there, they’re registered to vote there.”
The most recent lawsuit involves the same problems.
Cantu campaigned with Carlos Cardoza and Yesenia Ayala, the daughter of Norteño legend Ramon Ayala. They won the majority of ballots cast on Election Day and during early voting.
Arjona campaigned with Mentor Alejandro Cavazos and Rodolfo F. Franz, the son of City Councilman Rudy Franz. They won big among voters who cast mail-in ballots.
The numbers made Cantu suspicious.
Prosecutors had charged Arjona’s wife, Sylvia, with providing unlawful assistance to voters during the June 2016 Hidalgo City Council runoff election.
Cantu talked with Mildred Escobedo Flores, who founded Election Integrity Advocates, a non-partisan organization that fights voter fraud. She helped him sift through documents from the county Elections Department, searching for suspicious activity.
Gonzalez, the attorney who represents Arjona, said the allegations aren’t anything new.
“There are probably an equal number of people on their end that were assisted,” Gonzalez said. “That’s one of the biggest complaints you get in the Valley: that people get assisted when they shouldn’t have. Usually they’re Spanish-speakers. Usually they’re old, elderly people. Or usually they’re first-time voters. But the allegation is that they’re instructed to vote for a certain faction.”