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TMCNet:  At least 3 Hidalgo County primary election challenges to be filed Monday [The Monitor, McAllen, Texas :: ]

[March 23, 2014]

At least 3 Hidalgo County primary election challenges to be filed Monday [The Monitor, McAllen, Texas :: ]

(Monitor (McAllen, TX) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 23--EDINBURG -- An Hidalgo County election adviser claimed Saturday to have proof of voter tampering in this month's Democratic primary, prompting three losing candidates to say they will formally challenge the results.


Two more candidates hired an attorney in an apparent preliminary move toward filing an election challenge ahead of Monday's deadline.

Paul Vazaldua and Elvia Rios, who ran for Justice of the Peace in Precinct 2 Place 2, and Rey Ortiz, who ran for the 92nd state District Court judgeship, said on Saturday they plan to file an official election contest.

"I will be filing an election challenge on Monday and the basis of that is because I have read too many reports -- too many significant reports -- that talk about malfunctions with this voting system," Vazaldua said in a telephone interview. "And I think that a voting challenge on my part is on behalf of not only my supporters, but it's on behalf of anyone who participated in the election process." News reports and academic research in 2007 and 2008 on the electronic machines -- the iVotronic system, manufactured by Election Systems & Software -- described relatively simple methods of corrupting the voting systems.

Leslie Gower, the president of the Hidalgo County Chapter of the Texas Democratic Women and an adviser to some of the candidates, said Saturday that she has proof of vote tampering in the election.

In a telephone interview, The Monitor asked her if she had proof of not only system or user error but malicious intent to distort election results.

She answered with one word.

"Yes." Gower would not reveal specific examples of fraud, saying the evidence of wrongdoing goes deeper than what has already gone public.

Withholding the information, she said, offers an advantage in upcoming legal challenges.

"If they think it's just calibration issues that we're concerned about, that's in our favor," she said.

'IT WOULD HAVE TO BE AN INCREDIBLE CONSPIRACY' Rigging an election would require an expert programmer who knows how to hack the electronic voting system, a computer scientist familiar with the ballot machines used in Hidalgo County said.

Errors within the system are common, but tampering with election results would require significant technical skills and extended access to machines, said Duncan Buell, a University of South Carolina computer scientist and ES&S system expert.

Buell reckoned that with full access to the data, he could probably hack the system -- and replace legitimate votes with fraudulent ones -- in a single afternoon.

"But I've been writing code for 40 years," he said.

But rather than hacking, Buell said human or system error is a more probable culprit.

Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramón echoed that sentiment in her testimony Friday before the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court, where she said it would take "an incredible conspiracy" to pull off a vote-tampering scheme.

"It would have to be an incredible conspiracy because the source codes and the passwords are not even given to us," she said. "These come from the companies." Buell said even an employee in the elections department's information technology department would be unlikely to have the technical know-how to successfully disrupt the election results -- at least without getting caught.

"A good computer scientist could do it. I could probably do it," Buell wrote in an email. "But it isn't something I know how to do now. I would have to figure out (again) the compressed format, write the programs, use some sample data to make sure that I got it right, etc. This would require a serious hack of a computer system." MORE CHALLENGES COMING? Two other candidates -- Marla Cuellar, who ran for County Court at Law No. 8 judge, and Mari Regalado, who challenged Sergio Muñoz for a state representative seat -- have hired an attorney to potentially challenge the results of their elections.

Cuellar did not return text messages or phone calls Saturday. Regalado declined comment Saturday, citing her lawyer's advice.

"My attorney told me that I couldn't discuss that," she said.

Her attorney is San Antonio-based Rolando Rios, who is also a supporting attorney for Cuellar and Ortiz's challenges. Both Cuellar and Ortiz hired Jose Garza -- another lawyer from San Antonio -- as their lead attorney, with Rios and Martin Golando in supporting roles. Golando also works as chief of staff for a legislative colleague of Muñoz's, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio.

Regalado told The Monitor on Saturday she'd retained Golando, but Golando said he'd decided not to take her case for "personal reasons." Rios provided documentation showing he was the only attorney representing Regalado.

Reached on Saturday, Muñoz, D-Mission, sidestepped a question about how Golando's participation in the case might affect his relationships in Austin.

"I think right now as far as we're concerned the election has already passed, the votes have been canvassed and we're continuing to try to do our job for the people of District 36," he said.

CHALLENGE DEADLINE MONDAY The primary election results will become final, however, if Monday's deadline passes without any formal challenges.

"There is no way that the election results can change after Monday," Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia said after Friday's special Commissioners Court meeting. "The law says you can only change the results during a recount -- that's gone by -- or through an election contest. None has been filed. If no election contests are filed between now and Monday, then the results stand and the winners are declared to be the winners and they're going to be taking office January 1." Only the contested races would be eligible for changes if a candidate mounts a successful challenge -- meaning the results would become final in any other races without any formal disputes, according to Texas Election code.

Buell spoke with Homer Vasquez, a veteran assistant district attorney who is working on a possible criminal investigation into the possible voting irregularities, and offered his services as an analyst free-of-charge, he said.

Vasquez told him Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra would call him back.

"If nothing else, I would like to see elections get done better," Buell said when asked of his motivation for doing the work for free. "I put a lot of time and effort into the code that I wrote in South Carolina, I would like to use it elsewhere and I would get a certain ego boost in being able to use it outside of South Carolina." Guerra, who was attending conferences in San Antonio and Austin late last week, had yet to speak with Buell as of Saturday afternoon.

FRUSTRATIONS MOUNT ALONGSIDE QUESTIONS Ortiz lost the race for the Democratic nomination in the 92nd state District Court race to Pharr Municipal Judge Luis Singleterry, who is set to face Republican incumbent Jaime Tijerina, who was appointed to the bench by Gov. Rick Perry last year.

Vazaldua and Rios finished last in the Precinct 2 Place 2 Justice of the Peace race, which is set for a runoff between attorney Jerry Muñoz and hairdresser Eloy Treviño, son of retiring judge Rosa Treviño.

That could change, however, if they mount successful challenges.

Ortiz and Vazaldua both said their disputes weren't as much about their particular races as about ensuring the integrity of the voting system.

"I want to say to everybody who ran in my race and who ran in the 2014 race: This is not about you. This is about the integrity of the voting system," Vazaldua said.

Ortiz echoed that sentiment.

"I owe it to my campaign and I owe it to the voters to check into these anomalies and discrepancies and find out what went wrong," Ortiz said. "It's the integrity of the whole process that's at issue here." He said Gower and her son, Nathan Gower Schwarz, alerted him to potential irregularities.

Vazaldua also took issue with comments Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramón made earlier in the week, suggesting the candidates were blaming the elections administration for their losses.

"I am baffled -- I am taken aback -- by Yvonne Ramon's comments that this about losing candidates trying to blame someone for their loss," he said. "She should welcome a forensic expert to come in and review her system when you have this many people complaining. She will never know and the public will never know who's right and who's wrong unless we have an expert come in, a forensic expert." Ramón defended her operations and the voting machines, which were chosen by Hidalgo County commissioners and certified by the State of Texas and the federal government.

"Like always, we have those who do not win come and accuse us of something, like always, because they have to point the finger somewhere," she said in an interview Monday.

Vazaldua said he'd been involved in voter registration efforts for decades and cared deeply about the integrity of elections.

But this is the most he's done to challenge the ES&S machines that the county has used since 2005. He'd read the reports alleging the ES&S machines prior to running for justice of the peace, he said, but they didn't have the personal impact they did this year.

"I hadn't read them with the care that I did this time," he said. "I mean, this time it involved my election." jfischler@themonitor.com MARCH 23 UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect the following: Mari Regalado is being represented solely by San Antonio-based attorney Rolando Rios in her election challenge, despite telling The Monitor on Saturday that she'd hired Martin Golando. Rios is also a supporting attorney in the election challenges of Rey Ortiz and Marla Cuellar. San Antonio-based attorneys Golando and Jose Garza and are also representing both Cuellar and Ortiz, with Garza acting as the lead attorney.

___ (c)2014 The Monitor (McAllen, Texas) Visit The Monitor (McAllen, Texas) at www.themonitor.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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