South Texas school board election voided over vote fraud issues

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The Hidalgo school district must hold another board election after a Hidalgo County judge declared the November contest was tainted by mail-in ballot fraud.

Mentor Cantu filed a lawsuit in May, alleging incumbent trustee Ben Arjona beat him because “numerous voters cast ballots with illegal assistance, including those using mail-in ballots.” Cantu said the help came from Arjona supporters.

The tipoff was a lopsided margin of mail-in votes for Arjona, who claimed 79 percent of those ballots while securing barely 50 percent in the regular and early voting at the polls. Arjona won the election by 43 votes.

State District Judge Federico Hinojosa Jr. last week voided the November election and ordered a new election this November for the South Texas school district. Hinojosa said that 45 voters cast illegal mail-in votes. Among the improprieties he found were improper assistance with the ballots and “coaching,” or suggesting who people should vote for. Another seven voters, the judge said, were not residents of the Hidalgo school district and their votes cannot be counted.

Arjona’s lawyer said the decision will be appealed, possibly delaying the new election.

Arjona’s wife, Sylvia, and two others were charged in June 2018 with providing unlawful assistance to four voters in a June 2016 city council runoff election in Hidalgo. Criminal complaints allege the defendants provided assistance to voters who either didn’t request it or need it, while also suggesting “by word, sign, or gesture how the voter should vote.”

The cases are pending.

A state law passed in 2017 toughened penalties for voting-related infractions and has prompted an increase in voter fraud arrests. The law increased sanctions for possessing another voter’s ballot in cases where a mail-in ballot is handled by an agent who promises to mail it for the voter, potentially casting a vote for that agent’s benefactor.

The law also requires election officials to inform state officials of voter fraud evidence.

To be eligible to vote by mail, a person must be disabled, over the age of 65, or out of the county on voting day. A person assisting a voter on a mail-in ballot must sign the ballot envelope noting that help. The assistant must sign the ballot return envelope unless that person is related to or is registered at the same address as the voter.

See provisions for mail-in ballot help here.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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