A local judge has been tasked to decide whether discrimination, fraud or mistake played any part in former Port Arthur Councilman Carroll "Cal" Jones losing his seat in the May 10th elections.
As the Southeast Texas Record reported last month, rather than resign himself to defeat, Jones filed a lawsuit June 3 in hopes 60th District Judge Gary Sanderson would reinstate three dozen suspect mail-in ballot applications and declare him victorious.
The bench trial began Monday, July 28.
Jones had lost his seat to Elizabeth Segler by a vote of 191 to 205, coming up just 15 votes shy of victory.
He immediately demanded a recount, delaying Segler's swearing-in ceremony, but gave up on that course of action and instead pursued a legal recourse, demanding that 40-plus discarded ballot applications and subsequent 15 votes be reinstated.
According to testimony presented Monday, the Early Voting Ballot Board found that the mail-in ballot applications shared similar handwriting and were submitted without the signature of the person responsible for filling out the applications.
City Secretary Terri Hanks testified that she suspected voter fraud.
Under the instruction of the secretary of state, Hanks reported the incident to the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office. The DA investigated, but found no criminal wrongdoing.
After the DA found no illegality, Hanks granted some of the suspect applications. However, the Ballot Board refused to accept the 30-plus ballots arising from the mysterious applications, testimony and court documents show.
According to court papers, Port Arthur's election code and testimony, a voter can be assisted with a mail-in ballot application, but the person assisting has to sign his or her name on the application. All of the suspect applications had different voter signatures, but shared the same ink, handwriting and postage and lacked an assistor's signature.
Hanks testified that a woman called her office asking if she could mail all the applications in one envelope. Hanks said she told the woman she preferred them individually.
Jones' attorney, Kent Johns, presented the possibility that discrimination may have played a role in his client's defeat.
Testimony and court papers showed Jones requested 100 mail-in ballot applications from Hanks. Lacking 100 applications, Hanks made 100 copies of the application from a master form. All the suspect applications are thought to be copies of the master form.
Hanks testified that in her five years of experience, a councilperson has never asked for more than a few applications until Jones, and that she has never received more than 30 mail-in ballot applications until the May 10 election.
While questioning Hanks, Johns insinuated Hanks knew the applications were from Jones' supporters, since they were copies. He also pointed out to Hanks that her job description did not include investigating possible voter fraud.
In response, Hanks testified that there was no way of knowing where the applications came from, since it's not illegal to make copies and that it was "her duty to investigate to maintain the purity of the election."
Johns also insinuated Hanks tainted the early election board when she told its members the suspect applications were being investigated by the DA's office.
In his opening remarks, Johns told Judge Sanderson that 15 votes (the amount Jones needs to win) should count because of Hanks' actions.
The defense argued there is no evidence of fraud, discrimination or mistake, and not accepting unsigned assisted mail-in applications was legally the right course of action.
Johns is a partner in the Johns & Johns law firm.
Seglar is represented in part by attorney Jill Chatelain of the McPherson, Monk, Hughes, Bradley, Wimberley & Steele law firm.
According to Jones' suit, Hanks, charged with receiving applications for early voting and forwarding ballots, "unilaterally determined" that 43 applications for ballots were suspicious and improper.
Hanks then sent out ballots to all 43 applicants. Eight returned ballots were accepted and 35 ballots were withheld from the final count and canvassing of votes.
"On May 19 the Office of the City Secretary sent out notification of Ballot Rejection to the 35 applicants. The correspondence indicated that the Early Voting Ballot Board meet on May 9 and rejected their Application for a Ballot by Mail as invalid for failing to contain a witness signature," the suit said.
"The 35 ballots are currently held under lock and key in the Office of the Acting City Secretary for the City of Port Arthur. Of the 35 ballots held, 15 are applications and ballots from voters in District 2."
Jones is alleging Hanks and the Early Voting Board either separately or in combination with others "erroneously denied voters rights guaranteed under the (city's election code)," the suit states.
Case No. B181-861