By Mitch Borden
It’s like nothing local officials have ever experienced. Election Day was more than six weeks ago, but Midlanders still aren’t sure if a $569 million school bond won voter approval.
Through a series of election missteps, the results have flipped back and forth — pass, then fail, then pass again. The confusion’s stoked doubt in the county’s ability to run elections, especially with 2020 right around the corner.
From the start, the bond initiative was controversial. If passed, it would build two new high schools for the overcrowded Midland Independent School District.
The arguments for and against the bond were tense, but everything became more strained on Election Night when it looked like the measure passed by 12 votes. And, for a week, that’s what voters, officials and the media thought — until someone noticed an error in vote totals posted by the Midland County Elections Office. Since Election Night, mail-in ballots hadn’t been included in the final tally. When added in, the bond package had failed by 25 votes.
Bond advocates quickly called for a recount.
Ten days later, volunteers gathered at the community’s county annex to recount ballots. The entire process took nearly 20 hours, ending at 4:30 in the morning, says Dave Joyner.
“That’s it,” Joyner remembers thinking when the final totals were counted. “There are no more ballets. So, the results are done. The fact is the bond passed.”
Joyner is part of We Choose Our Future, the special political action committee that advocated for the bond.
He says moments after the recount results were in, when everyone looked closer, they realized there was another big problem: over 800 votes were now missing.
“It was wild, said Midland County elections administrator Deborah Land. “When they came and said ‘well, apparently we have a discrepancy of 820 votes.’ What, after all this, what?”
Land was stunned. She’s been elections administrator for the last five years. Throughout this whole process, Land’s maintained that she and her staff haven’t done anything wrong.
“You know I have worked very hard in this community,” Land says. “I believe in these elections and for this to have gone as horribly awry as it has, it hurts me.”
But mistakes were made. The wrong election results were released, correcting them took over a week and elections staff needed more training on how to operate new voting machines.
“This election process has been so miserable from every, just about every aspect you can think of,” says Brandon Hodges, head of the SPAC Better Bond for Midland, which opposed the bond package.
Hodges has little sympathy for Land.
“She should be able to reconcile the votes, it is her job,” said Hodges.
Hodges’s irritation was on full display at a public meeting last Thursday, where volunteers were counting up the paper ballots. Representatives from both SPACs, Midland ISD personnel and county officials got together to try to figure out what had happened.
Where did the 800 votes go? Was there something wrong with the voting machines? Had the recount results been off?
Then, in the middle of this all, a county staff member said they found something. A ballot box.
The box had been sitting in the Midland County elections office for weeks. No one had noticed it. There was also no documentation of it anywhere. Worse yet, Land had insisted that all of the ballot boxes were accounted for. Officials would later crack open the newly-discovered box and find the over 800 missing ballots, further confusing the bond vote’s final outcome.
“Mistakes are going to be made, you know I can only say ‘I’m sorry so many times,” says Land. “I wish it hadn’t happened. Believe me, I wish it hadn’t happened.”
On Friday, Midland’s election committee is set to discuss Land’s performance as the county’s elections administrator, which could lead to her being fired or suspended. For her part, Land says this has been a learning experience, and that changes will be made to election procedures and training in the future.
As for the bond, it still technically passed after the official recount. The only way to include the found 800 votes, which could possibly fail the bond, is for the election to be contested in court. Both supporters and opponents of the bond say they’re putting lawsuits together.
“We have to file a contest and we are going to file a contest,” says Hodges with Better Bond For Midland.
Hodges, and everyone else who’s challenging the results, believe that’s the only way voters will get a fair end to this election.