Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Eagle disputes that AG opinion sides with Carew on ballot question

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Hood County Judge Ron Massingill is calling on Precinct 4 Commissioner Dave Eagle, County Clerk Katie Lang and other fellow Republicans who alleged that former Elections Administrator Michele Carew broke the law to publicly apologize after the attorney general issued an opinion that Massingill said “totally vindicates” her.

“I think they owe Michele Carew an apology because that’s what caused her to quit,” he said of Carew’s departure last year after months of criticism that included calls for her to be fired or for her non-partisan position to be eliminated.

Neither Lang nor Eagle offered that apology when contacted by the Hood County News, and Eagle disputed Massingill’s and Carew’s interpretation of the six-page document.

Ballot numbering was at the heart of the controversy that led the county to request the AG opinion.

There was disagreement about whether the Texas Election Code requires the consecutive numbering of ballots and whether electronic voting systems that randomly number ballots fulfill legal requirements.

Hood County uses a hybrid voting system from Hart Intercivic called Verity DUO Voting System 24. It numbers ballots randomly.

Carew said that the Texas Secretary of State “worked closely with Hart Intercivic” and that she had received confirmation from that office that the automatic numbering system met legal requirements.

Nevertheless, Lang, Eagle, and others expressed the view that the law requires ballots to be consecutively numbered starting with the number 1. Others said that the verbiage in the law pertains to paper ballots.

In April 2021, after a discussion about auditable paper trails in voting processes, the Commissioners Court asked County Attorney Matt Mills to seek an opinion from the AG’s office about ballot numbering requirements and election-related authorities of elections administrators versus commissioners courts.

The county received its answer on Dec. 15, 19 months after Mills sent the request.

The office indicated that Carew was correct and that the system used by the county is legal.

The opinion also stated that Hood County’s elections administrator selects the ballot-numbering method for certain elections while the Commissioners Court selects the voting system.

As for a question pertaining to the numbering of split ballot batches, the AG’s office stated that it was a fact question “beyond the scope” of an attorney general opinion.

“But pursuant to section 52.075 of the Election Code, there must be a connection between any ballot form or content modification such as the one set forth in (Secretary of State Advisory 2019-23), and the formatting requirements of the voting system,” the opinion’s summary stated. 

TARGETED

Carew had 14 years of experience as an elections administrator and was president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators when she was hired by the Hood County Elections Commission in a 3-2 vote in August 2020. The commission is composed of the county judge, the county clerk, the tax assessor-collector, the Democratic party chair, and the Republican party chair.

She was hired with the votes of Massingill, Tax Assessor-Collector Andrea Ferguson, both of whom are Republicans, and Democratic Party Chair Adrienne Martin. The two nay votes came from Lang and then-Republican Party Chair David Fischer.

Although there were no reported issues with the November 2020 election in which President Donald Trump received more than 80% of the vote in Hood County, 2021 brought a laser focus on Carew and on how elections are handled in the county. Ballot numbering became a central issue.

In summer 2021, the Hood County Republican Executive Committee adopted a resolution threatening a social media campaign against Massingill if he didn’t call a meeting of the Elections Commission to discuss firing Carew.

When he refused, Lang did so.

At that meeting, Fischer made a motion to terminate Carew’s employment. Lang seconded it, but it failed in a 3-2 vote.

Lang made a motion to suspend Carew for two weeks without pay, but it failed for lack of a second.

Massingill said that he was the target of “slander” and threats and that the treatment Carew received was “abysmal.”

In written comments to the Hood County News about the letter from the AG’s office, Carew stated, “It’s unfortunate that the citizens of Hood County were misled by a small group of propagandists intent on dividing our community. In the end, truth always wins, just as we see here in the AG opinion.” 

LANG, EAGLE RESPOND

Lang and Eagle provided responses via email.

Lang did not address the attorney general opinion but stated, “I do not answer to the County Judge, I answer to the Citizens of Hood County. They are my boss as stated by my 61.39% win in the primary election with 3 opposing candidates and NO run-off, and again stated in the General Election with one opponent and an 81.51% win.”

Eagle said that he saw no victory in the AG opinion, for either Carew or himself.

“It appears to me the AG decided to NOT make a decision on this issue after 19 months,” his message stated.

He noted that the opinion states that a court “could” find that a machine-generated method of numbering ballots complies with the statute, which is similar to the words “may” or “might.”

“We knew that before Mr. Mills ever sent off the opinion,” he wrote.

Eagle added, “My take on this statement is the AG is sending a message that this issue needs to be put to the test in a court of law.”

His email went on to say that an elections administrator “still has to have clear-cut statutory directives regarding which methods of numbering are available from which to make that choice” and that it “still appears to be an open question.”

Eagle stated that the bottom line is that “an interested party with standing is going to have to file a lawsuit in a district court, brief the issue, and obtain a judicial ruling on this issue,” or the Texas Legislature could pass legislation to clarify it.

As for Massingill’s belief that an apology to Carew is in order, Eagle stated, “I believe the county judge should read an AG opinion thoroughly before making a side bar comment about what someone else should do in response to said opinion.”

A PDF of the AG opinion is posted at the top of this article.