Saturday, March 08, 2008

"How can it be a legitimate election with all this going on?"

Toll Party cries foul in GOP's Dist. 73


Roger Croteau
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

NEW BRAUNFELS — The San Antonio Toll Party is calling for an investigation into what it calls voting irregularities in the Texas House District 73 Republican primary in Gillespie County, where the final box swung the victory from incumbent Rep. Nathan Macias to challenger Doug Miller.

But party and election officials said they are confident the votes were counted accurately.

Macias was ahead by 58 votes until the final box, Precinct 5 in Gillespie County, was counted in the early morning hours Wednesday. Miller won the box by 96 votes — 201 to 105 — and the entire contest by 38 votes.

Terri Hall, the Toll Party director, said Miller's relatives helped count emergency paper ballots used in that precinct when it ran out of regular ballots. She said the GOP county chairwoman, Pauline Cusack, repeatedly spoke on the phone with Carter Casteel, who held the District 73 seat until Macias beat her in a heated race in the 2006 GOP primary.

Finally, Hall said it suspiciously took hours for that final box of votes to arrive at the Gillespie County Courthouse and then it took four hours to count its ballots.

"We were getting direct word on the ground from Nathan Macias' poll watchers," Hall said. "I was like, 'You've got to be kidding.' It was so blatant. How can it be a legitimate election with all this going on?"

Hall said the Toll Party is especially concerned because Macias is "a stalwart hero on the issue of toll roads."

Cusack said she did not speak with Casteel on the telephone at all that night, and has not spoken with her since Casteel lost in 2006. It may have taken a while for the Precinct 5 box to get to the courthouse, but there was no evidence the box was tampered with, nor did it take an unusually long time to count, she said.

Cusack said one of Miller's family members was involved in the hand count of the emergency paper ballots, but the woman volunteered to help "innocently," and once it was called to Cusack's attention, the vote count was halted. She got new volunteers and they started the count over again from scratch.

"I was so upset being accused of doing something wrong, I was almost in tears," Cusack said.

The precinct is in the Harper area of Gillespie County, where Miller owns a small ranch. Miller won 13 of the 14 boxes in Gillespie County, with the Harper box having the largest margin.

"You would expect his neighbors to support him," said Miller campaign spokesman Craig Murphy. "This is basically just sour grapes. It's a little silly and a little sad."

Gillespie County Clerk Mary Rusche said the turnout in the Harper area was much larger than usual and the precinct ran out of ballots. She made copies of the ballots for voters to use, and those 163 "emergency" ballots were not on the same heavy paper stock and could not be counted by optical scanner with the others. They had to be counted by hand, a process overseen by Republican Party officials.

Cusack said she was "pleading" for volunteers in the courthouse to help with the count.

"This woman volunteered," she said. "I didn't even know her name and I did not ask anyone who they support. She was not screaming to get in front and exclude someone else. Let's not pummel her. She was innocently trying to help out."

Cusack said she does not know what the relationship is between the woman and Miller. When she got a call from the Macias campaign complaining about her, 90 minutes into the process, the count was restarted with new volunteers, Cusack said.

Hall said she plans to ask the Texas Secretary of State's office to investigate the Gillespie vote count, with her complaints to be lodged personally, as a voter, and on behalf of the Toll Party.

Scott Haywood, a spokesman for the office, said it would review the complaints and decide whether they warrant being forwarded to the Attorney General's office for further review.

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