[Image courtesy of jamieontheroad]
Martindale, TX – a city of just over 1,200 – is preparing to re-run its mayoral election after a series of election errors led a court to invalidate the results. The Austin American-Statesman has more:
The city of Martindale is so small every vote truly does matter.
Yet, election officials somehow lost track of who should be voting for mayor in May, forcing a redo next week for the first time anyone can remember in the history of the 160-year-old town.
Mistakes with the ballot during the May election allowed those outside the city — in Martindale’s extraterritorial jurisdiction — to improperly vote for mayor, while those in the city were allowed to vote on ETJ issues.
Following the election, Randy Bunker was sworn in as the new mayor, only to be ousted in September when a Caldwell County state District Court nullified the results and ordered incumbent Doyle Mosier to be reinstated until the race could be voted on again.
“I believe (the ballot problems) definitely kept people from voting,” said Bunker, who won by five votes before the election was voided. “They walked out and never came back.”
Not mentioned in the court order was a problem on the ballot for four unopposed City Council races. The candidates’ names were listed on the ballot, but without boxes for voters to check, meaning no votes were officially cast. Those candidates will also appear on the ballots again next week. Early voting in the election ends Friday.
The problem with the mayoral race wasn’t discovered until about 11 a.m. on the day of the May vote. Officials then switched from electronic voting to paper ballots, allowing volunteers to verify where each resident lived before giving them the proper ballot.
The mix-up appears to have occurred, in part, because elections are rare in Martindale:
Martindale, with a population of about 1,200, rarely has elections because there is often the same number of candidates as there are positions open, said Mosier, who contested the results after losing the race. In fact, he said, the only other election held in the past three years was in May 2014 to renew the 25-cent sales tax for street repairs. Only 11 people voted — nine for the tax and two against.
“That’s one of the limits of trying to govern,” Mosier said. “People don’t really care until things go wrong. We had a lot go wrong here lately, but I hope we have a lot of turnout next election.”
Another source of the problems appears to have been mistakes at the county office that prepared the vote:
[A]fter Mosier lost the race by five votes, 74-69, Bunker became mayor until September, when the court voided the election.
“It was like a bad movie,” Mosier said. “Even though everyone realized it was a flawed election, it’s still my responsibility as the losing candidate to contest it.”
Although Martindale is in Caldwell County, the town paired up with the San Marcos school district to defray election costs, which allowed the May vote to be administered by Hays County. The school district includes Martindale.
According to City Administrator Tom Forrest, it costs the city roughly $1,500 to run an election, but the cost can be lowered by teaming up with a school district or county. He couldn’t provide the exact cost to the city for next week’s election.
Forrest said two lists of voters — those in the city and those in the extraterritorial jurisdiction — were sent to Hays County to prepare the ballots. However, the two weren’t separated in the electronic voting machines for the May election. The city didn’t catch the error during early voting.
“There was a serious misunderstanding and oversight on our part,” Forrest said.
For the November election, Caldwell County will administer the election.
This is an extreme example of what can go wrong on Election Day, but it does highlight two issues that I think are worth keeping in mind. First, there is the often-complicated relationship between local governments used to manage and fund elections; here, you had a neighboring county running a combined school and city election, which meant that county staff were likely less familiar with Martindale’s specific challenges. Second – and perhaps more importantly – there is ongoing challenge of managing elections in very small jurisdictions where contested races may be less frequent, but when they are they occur they are of vital importance … and the local infrastructure to support elections is not as strong.
The trick, it seems, is to find a way to help jurisdictions like Martindale – where less than 150 votes can determine the future of the city – avoid election problems that cost the jurisdiction both financially and in terms of hard feelings in a close-knit electorate. That’s easier said than done – but figuring out how to coordinate all the moving parts of our country’s smallest local elections is a good start.
I will definitely be watching Martindale on and after Election Day. Stay tuned …