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COVID-19 delays Precinct 3 election contest

Monday would’ve been the start of the trial challenging the election results of the March 2020 Democratic Primary for Precinct 3.

Last March, Hidalgo County Precinct 3 Commissioner Jose “Joe” Flores filed a lawsuit against challenger and local businessman Everardo “Ever” Villarreal, who beat him in the Democratic primary by 92 votes.

Hidalgo County Precinct 3 Commissioner Jose “Joe” Flores and Everardo “Ever” Villarreal.

The lawsuit cited more than 1,000 illegal votes and requested that the March Democratic Party primary election results be declared void and a new election be held.

“Villarreal built his political campaign around a promise of honesty and transparency. The discouraging reality, however, is that Villarreal’s campaign demonstrated the extreme opposite…His campaign paid many voters to vote for him,” according to the lawsuit. “Villarreal’s campaign altogether consciously ignored the law in order to obtain more votes. Victory at the expense of the true will of the voters is not a victory at all but rather a slap in the face to our democracy and the citizens of Hidalgo County Precinct 3. A new election must be ordered to restore trust to the citizens of Hidalgo County Precinct.”

A total of 19,982 votes were cast in the race, with Villarreal earning 10,037 to the incumbent’s 9,945, according to the Hidalgo County Elections Department.

The trial, which is expected to last two weeks, was set for Monday, May 11 last month, according to court documents.

However, an amended pre-trial order that was filed Tuesday, April 21 rescheduled the trial to July 6.

The order cited concerns regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and several orders signed by state Gov. Greg Abbott, the Supreme court of Texas and the Court of Criminal Appeals to take reasonable action to avoid “Exposing court proceedings to the threat of COVID-19.”

Among the orders included the halting of all court proceedings deemed “nonessential,” which the order argued the election contest be considered essential.

“COVID-19 has had a horrific impact upon this State, the United States and the World (sic),” the order stated. “An election contest may be considered an essential case that must be tried as required by the Code.”

The order also pointed out that, due to a lack of a run-off election as no other candidate would be on the ballot during the November general election. 

According to the order, many COVID-19 precautions will be in place such as temperature checks twice a day for any person entering the courthouse, the mandatory usage of masks for witnesses, social distancing and the judge will question everyone if they’ve had exposure COVID-19 or its symptoms.

“The court shall take such other reasonable actions as deemed necessary to avoid exposing court proceedings to the threat of COVID-19,” the order stated.

The order was signed by visiting Judge Jose Manuel Banales who will preside over the case.

As part of the court orders that has affected the Hidalgo County Courthouse, there have not been any jury trials in over a month, District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez said.

The courthouse has been operating all this time with a skeleton crew to avoid a large crowd, the courthouse is closed to the public and hearings are being conducted through the Zoom platform.

“We’re looking at having the return of jury panels by June 1, but we won’t know for sure if we’ll make that day until a few days before,” Rodriguez said. “We’ll look to the Texas Supreme Court for guidance on how to operate.”

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