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Palmhurst breaks Texas Election Code

Before the city of Palmhurst submitted ballot documentation to the county for the May 7 election, they neglected to complete one step — a drawing to determine the order in which the candidates’ names appear on the ballot. By not conducting a drawing, Palmhurst broke the Texas Election Code. 

The Texas Election Code is meant to create consistency and uniformity throughout the state, protect the secrecy of the ballot, promote voter access, ensure all legal ballots are counted and reduce the likelihood of fraud. 

According to the code, legally, the authority responsible for having the official ballot prepared for the election must conduct a drawing to determine the order in which the candidates’ names appear on the ballot for each race. The drawing must be public, and the authority must announce the date, time and place at least four days before the event. 

But the city of Palmhurst never conducted a drawing for the May 7 election.  

When asked why the city neglected to conduct a drawing, City Attorney Darrell Davis said “it just wasn’t done.”

“We rarely have had elections in the past where there’s multiple candidates,” Davis said. “I don’t remember. I have no idea about that.” 

In emailed responses from Davis, Palmhurst City Manger Lori Lopez and City Secretary Richard Garcia, they said the city assumed the Hidalgo County Elections Department would manage the drawing because the city contracted them for the May 7 election. But city officials did not raise concerns about the issue until after the ballot was finalized. 

Hilda Salinas, assistant director for the county elections department, referenced section 52.094 of the Texas Election Code. 

“We are, in a sense, a vendor. We are the ones contracted by the authority, but the authority is the one that is supposed to supply all the information and conduct everything. And we are not the authority for the Palmhurst city election. It’s always been the city of Palmhurst,” Salinas said.

The May 7 election ballot consisted of three Palmhurst races — the mayoral race, city council place 3 and city council place 4. For the mayoral race, winner Ramiro Rodriguez Jr. appeared on the ballot above Israel Silva. For place 3, winner Robert Salinas appeared on the ballot above Carlton Martin. For place 4, winner Hugo Gutierrez appeared on the ballot above Mary Ann Gonzalez. 

Studies in Texas, California and Vermont have shown that candidates placed first on the ballot have a higher chance of winning elections simply because of their position on the ballot. It is enough of an advantage that it could sway an election in smaller races, like for a city or a school board. Holding a drawing to determine place order on the ballot increases the opportunity for an even playing field, especially if candidates run on a slate, as they did in Palmhurst. 

All the winners of the Palmhurst election were in the first position on the ballot, and they all campaigned as a team, which led Silva to believe the lack of a drawing was intentional, and that he was cheated out of a fair race. 

According to the Assistant Secretary of State for Communications Sam Taylor, there is no specific penalty associated with not conducting a drawing for name placement on the ballot. However, if a section of the election code is not complied with, that could be grounds for an election contest in court. 

“A candidate who feels like they were negatively affected by a lack of a public ballot drawing, usually the losing candidate, if they feel like something wasn’t proper in the election, they can say, either the city or the county or whoever was responsible, did not conduct a public ballot drawing in accordance with this section of the election code,” Taylor explained. “That candidate can challenge the results of the election and, depending on the outcome of that trial, then the judge can order a new election to happen.” 

However, according to the email from Palmhurst officials, the city attorney contacted the legal division of the Secretary of State, where he was told the lack of drawing was not an error serious enough to require any action. 

Silva decided not to contest the results for several reasons, one of them being that the mayoral race resulted in the need for a special election anyway. 

“This is the reason that I was running for mayor, and why I’m going to continue running because there’s things that have been done that I find are not ethical and not right,” he said. “People need to understand that not every city is perfect. But at the same time, hopefully, we get the people to make sure that things are done the right way going forward, that the law is followed like it should be.”

The city will schedule the special election for the mayoral race at a later date. But the place 3 and place 4 city council races from the May 7 election could be contested if one of the candidates decides to escalate the matter. 

Place 3 candidate Martin lost to Salinas 187 to 376 votes. Martin did not return calls inquiring about the election results, and Salinas chose not to comment on the matter. But place 4 candidate Gonzalez, who lost to Gutierrez 240 to 321 votes, said she is unsure if she wants to challenge the results. 

Because this was Gutierrez’s first time running for office, he said he was unfamiliar with how the process should have worked. Gonzalez, however, remains disappointed in the ordeal as a whole. 

“I was the last person on the ballot — whether that was intentional or coincidental, it leaves it very broad,” Gonzalez said. “I would have appreciated some fairness in the selection of the placement of the ballots, but it didn’t happen.”

Gonzalez is a retired law enforcement officer who served her last seven years as a federal agent investigating the misconduct of agents and officers. She was also assigned to the FBI Public Corruption Task Force and wanted to utilize her skills from law enforcement in her role on the council. 

“I had hoped that we could bring some transparency to the city with the things that were going on in Palmhurst,” she said. “But that…unfortunately was done incorrectly.”

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