In a shocking move, Monday evening, visiting Judge Michael Mayes declared the March 1 Republican Primary race for Liberty County Commissioner Pct. 4 null and void.
Incumbent Leon Wilson won the party’s nomination over Craig McNair on his way to a third term in a closely contested race by a margin of only five votes.
“In what was the closest race in living memory, a visiting judge sitting in the 253rd Judicial District Court of Liberty County ordered a new election,” said Elections Administrator Klint Bush.
Mayes was appointed to hear the case in the 253rd District Court by Judge Olen Underwood. The latter oversees the Second Administrative Judicial Region of Texas.
“The election process sometimes requires court review in such narrow races, and in this instance, the process worked as designed,” Bush said.
Before making his ruling, Mayes voiced his hesitance to toss the election but believed there were issues in this election process he felt needed to be addressed that may have affected the outcome
While no evidence of any voter fraud was presented, McNair’s attorney, Andy Taylor, argued there were improprieties regarding voters casting ballots in the wrong commissioner’s precinct; most specifically, there were some 22 votes in question.
Taylor argued that the close margin in the race, with this number of voters confirmed to have voted in the wrong precinct, was enough to invalidate the election.
The judge also cited the testimony of District Attorney Jennifer Bergman as a basis for his decision.
Bergman, a resident of Cleveland and not within the contested commissioner boundaries, raised concerns as “the highest elected official in the county” over several issues, including her own voting experience.
Bergman spoke about personally investigating the process and working to identify other individuals who may have run into similar issues.
Following redistricting, the Office of Elections placed multiple ads in this newspaper and other local media sources encouraging voters to know their voting location ahead of time. Signs were also posted in voting booths asking voters to check their ballots in an effort to avoid these issues.
“Voters have a responsibility to look at their individual voter card and make sure it is accurate before an election. That includes calling to change your address if you move. The voter roll will not be updated until you call. We legally can’t change anything without the voter’s signature,” Bush said.
During testimony, Wilson’s attorney, Jerad Najvar, asked Bergman if she had investigated on behalf of McNair, which she refuted. Bergman testified the investigation conducted by herself and one of her office’s investigators had nothing to do with helping McNair.
Despite testifying under oath that she and at least one of her office’s investigators personally investigated voter irregularities, Bergman told The Vindicator that any investigation into the election would have to be turned over to the Texas Rangers.
Currently, she wasn’t aware of any official investigation.
“I want to see that any errors are fixed going forward, so voters can have confidence in the election,” Bergman said.
During the hearing, no officials from the Office of Elections or the Republican Party were asked about the elections process or possible mistakes in the voter rolls.
Republican Party Chairwoman Emily Cook expressed concerns over the court’s decision but is prepared to conduct a new election.
“I do not mind a new election being ordered. I do, however, have grave concerns about how the court ruled Mr. McNair’s lawsuit was timely filed. Mr. McNair’s attorney argued - and the judge agreed - that the current election statute basically has no end time for when a losing candidate can contest an election. While I believe this is an incorrect reading of the statute, I am afraid it will be used as a playbook in future Liberty County elections to further disrupt our elections process.”
Barring an appeal to the decision, a new election has been ordered and, at this time, is expected to take place on Tuesday, May 24, during the upcoming runoff elections.
That election will cost taxpayers an estimated $15,000, with the Republican party paying another portion of the costs. Taxpayers would roughly be footing the bill at a 9:1 ratio.
Currently, Wilson is weighing the possibility of an appeal as he assures voters that his team will continue to work for the community.
“I just want to thank all those who supported me as I continue to work for all of Precinct 4” Wilson promised to fight for the rights of all the voters.
“I will not stand by as Craig McNair continues to steal your voice and your vote.”
McNair declined to comment when asked about the decision.