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In Ongoing Bond Election Saga, Missing Ballot Box Reveals Hundreds Of Votes

By Mitch Borden

The controversial $569 million bond election for Midland Independent School District has taken another turn as county election officials have opened a missing ballot box with more than 800 votes from the Nov. 5 election.

The sealed ballot box, first discovered in a secure storage closet last week, could likely account for the discrepancy between the vote totals from the Nov. 23 recount and the votes electronically recorded weeks earlier on Election Day.

When election officials opened the tin box Monday morning, they discovered it was full of hundreds of ballots that were not included weeks earlier when officials recounted results and subsequently certified the election. The box was first presumed to be empty and unrelated to this year’s multi-million dollar bond.

As an election official cracked the seal on the missing ballot box in front of a crowd of reporters and local and state election officials, there were audible gasps in the audience when the box opened, revealing stacks of ballots inside.

“It’s ballots from this election,” said Deborah Land, Midland County’s election administrator. 

The saga of the Midland ISD bond has now entered its sixth week and has shaken voter confidence ahead of the 2020 election. 

“Finding answers to these questions is bigger than any bond, no matter how important that bond may be for our students, teachers and our community,” wrote Midland ISD Board of Trustees President Rick Davis, who pushed for the bond. “We all seek answers that will restore confidence in our elections — including this one.”

Although the bond officially passed when the election was certified, the district says they have not yet taken steps toward implementing it. 

The bond trouble began on Election Night when problems with new voting equipment delayed the initial results of the bond election. By the time the preliminary results were released that night, it appeared the bond had passed by 12 votes. Later, provisional ballots widened the margin of victory to 18. However, the results posted on the Midland County Elections website had failed to include mail-in ballots.  When accounted for, the mail-in ballots flipped the results — the bond had now failed by 25 votes. 

Two weeks after the Nov. 5 election, pro-bond advocates with the political action committee We Choose Our Future filed for a recount

“We owe it to the voters, and our supporters, to ensure an accurate vote count,” read a press release from the PAC. 

The marathon recount lasted nearly 20 hours and, once again, flipped the bond results. This time, the count showed the election passed by 11 votes. The results brought immediate relief to bond advocates, who said the $569-million was desperately needed to address overcrowding and plan for future growth at the Permian school district. As it was voted on, the bond would go toward building two new high school campuses and refurbishing an older one along with other facility updates. 

But the recount revealed another problem in the election: hundreds of votes were now missing. The certified election totals — including the mail-in ballots erroneously omitted before — totaled 23,631. But the recount held by the school district counted only 22,811 votes, a difference of 820.

However, the discrepancy between certified voting totals and the total from the recount didn’t stop district officials from quickly certifying the election results.

Some have lambasted the district, saying officials should have either waited for the county’s investigation into the vote discrepancy or waited for an election contest lawsuit. However, Midland ISD Board of Trustees President Rick Davis maintains that officials with the Texas Secretary of State’s office informed the district that state law doesn’t allow the district's board to do either of those options.

Officials with the Texas Secretary of State’s office were present Monday morning as local officials opened the missing ballot box. The officials were present to “observe and continue to advise local officials” with the bond, said Republican State Senator Kel Seliger in a tweet.

When the county first discovered the vote discrepancy, officials said they weren’t sure whether a technical problem with the new voting machines caused the inconsistency, or if it was human error. But the discovery of a sealed ballot box filled with more than 800 votes from the Nov. 5 election indicates the latter.

The discovery of the missing ballot box will likely not impact the election results immediately. But an election contest does seem imminent, which could void the results.

Mitch Borden is Permian Basin Reporter & Producer at Marfa Public Radio.