Precinct 4 Commissioner Dave Eagle, left, and County Judge Ron Massingill

As the voting process and claims of election fraud continue to tear apart an already divided nation, elections administrators could find themselves in the political crosshairs despite roles that are supposed to be nonpartisan.

That is happening in Hood County.

Elections Administrator Michele Carew, hired last year just weeks before the November General Election after the resignation of Crickett Miller, is at the heart of an attorney general opinion that County Attorney Matt Mills is seeking at the request of the Hood County Commissioners Court.

The decision to seek the AG opinion pertaining to Carew and a statute regarding ballot numbering was made during last week’s regular meeting of the Commissioners Court. It followed an at-times heated discussion spearheaded by Precinct 4 Commissioner Dave Eagle that lasted more than 80 minutes.

Eric Morrow, dean of The College of Liberal & Fine Arts at Tarleton State University and an associate professor of political science, said that elections administrators, whose roles include making sure that elections are “free of influence in terms of partisan politics,” may find themselves under increased scrutiny in the current political climate.

“I think it will become an issue because people are looking for kind of a rationale to engage with the results of the last election,” he said. “And you see that all the way up in the Legislature. This has become a very political issue.

“The challenge here is for people to try to kind of separate out these things, to understand the complexity of it. It’s easy to get caught up in the emotional side of it which sometimes pushes the political buttons rather than being fully informed about how this actually works and what elections administrators do to ensure the integrity of elections.”

Morrow indicated that serving as a poll worker in Erath County last November left him with empathy for the work that election workers do.

“You had a lot of people all over the country doing their best to do a quality job and to make sure elections went fairly and the integrity of the election was there, and I just don’t think they get enough credit for what they do,” he said. “They’re skilled professionals, and they’re there to do a job.”

Elections administrator positions were created by the Texas Legislature to allow for elections to be overseen by someone who is not openly aligned with a political party. Historically, election-related duties have been handled by county clerks, with voter registration typically handled by tax assessor-collectors. Both of those positions are elected, with candidates tied to a party affiliation.

Despite Carew having voted in Republican primaries for the past 10 years - as evidenced by her voting record, according to County Judge Ron Massingill - she is being criticized by Eagle and a faction of like-minded Republicans. About 80% of the county votes Republican, and every county elected official is affiliated with that party.

At last week’s Commissioners Court meeting, Eagle and others alleged that Carew is not following the law where the numbering of ballots is concerned, and some expressed other criticisms as well. (Carew disputes the claim that she is not following the law.)

Eagle was also a critic of Miller, who was hired by a previous Commissioners Court in 2013. She quit last year and is now running elections for Parker County.

After a discussion about auditable paper trails in voting processes, the county judge and commissioners agreed to ask Mills to seek an attorney general opinion on whether the court can “request” that Carew “abide by” Section 52.002 of the Texas Election Code, which pertains to numbered ballots. The statute states: “The ballots prepared by each authority responsible for having the official ballot prepared shall be numbered consecutively beginning with the number ‘1’.”

Carew, who is president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators, told the Hood County News that the statute is meant specifically for counties that use paper ballots. Hood County uses “an electronic hybrid voting system,” she said.

The court has no authority to instruct Carew on how to do her job, and that is why Eagle used the word “request” in his motion.

The elections administrator answers to the Hood County Elections Commission, which comprises the county judge (Massingill), the county clerk (Katie Lang), the tax assessor-collector (Andrea Ferguson), the Democratic Party chair (Adrienne Martin) and the Republican Party chair (David Fischer).

Only the Elections Commission can hire and fire the elections administrator. However, the Commissioners Court handles the county budget and has the power to create and eliminate elections administrator positions and elections administration offices.

Eleven people in the audience expressed their opinions about Carew and the ballot numbering issue at last week’s meeting. Eight shared views that were similar with Eagle’s. One man, Daniel Peters, threatened to sue the county, claiming that Carew is now the fifth “civil servant” being targeted for ouster for political reasons. (The other four he was referring to were Miller and three library directors.)

A previous Commissioners Court created the county’s non-partisan elections administration office and the elections administrator position in 2007. Out of 254 counties in Texas, 161 have opted to hire an elections administrator. That person serves as each county’s voter registrar and plans, coordinates, leads and manages local, state and federal elections.

In his criticism of Carew, Eagle referenced an email that she sent to court members on Tuesday, March 2 informing them of her decision to allow ballots to be numbered electronically.

Carew forwarded that email to the Hood County News. It included several attachments, including the Secretary of State’s Inspector’s Report for Early Voting and Election Day during the November General Election which, she noted in her message to court members, showed “no irregularities or concerns and that all procedures were followed in accordance with the law.”

Here is an excerpt from Carew’s email:

“Per Texas Election Code 52.002 it is the responsibility of the Elections Administrator to ensure that the ballot numbering is done correctly and legally. I have consulted with the Texas Secretary of State (SOS) and confirmed that the Hart’s Intercivic’s Verity DUO Voting System 24 automatic numbering system meets this requirement. The SOS worked closely with Hart Intercivic (Hart) to develop and certify this process. Texas Election Code 51.003 explicitly states that the authority responsible for procuring and allocating supplies falls on the EA. This includes, but is not limited to, ordering ballots and all that entails.

“I would like the Court to know that I have made the decision to allow the system to number each ballot electronically. I feel that doing so is the most secure and cost-effective solution, it also protects the voter privacy laws and it also takes the burden off of the Election Judges and Clerks without adding an unnecessary step to the process. This will allow them to concentrate on their jobs and enable them to focus on conducting fair and honest elections.”

Video of the Hood County Commissioners Court meeting can be found on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYAyQBZyJ_c).

kcruz@hcnews.com | 817-579-1886