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Box Of Ballots Found In Texas Could Change Outcome Of Midland Bond Proposal, Again

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Weeks after election night in November, voters still aren't sure if a half-billion-dollar school bond won approval. Through a series of election missteps, the results have flipped back-and-forth, passing, then failing, then passing again. Marfa Public Radio's Mitch Borden takes us through Midland's wild roller coaster of an election.

MITCH BORDEN, BYLINE: It started with a controversial $569 million bond initiative that would build two new high schools in Midland. Emotions were already running high when this happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Now for election 2019 coverage, we're going to begin with the shocker of last night. You've heard that every vote counts. Well, that could not be more true in Midland County, where, literally, a handful of votes made all the difference.

BORDEN: The bond measure looked like it passed by 12 votes. And for a week, that's what everyone thought, until someone noticed an error in the totals. Turns out all ballots had not been included in the final tally. When they were added in, the bond package failed by 25 votes. Bond advocates called for a hand recount. Dave Joyner was there and says they didn't finish until 4 in the morning, when finally...

DAVE JOYNER: That's it. There's no more ballots. And so the results are done. Like, the fact is the bond passed.

BORDEN: Joyner is part of a 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 a bigger problem.

JOYNER: Well, how could this be off by 820-something votes?

BORDEN: Hundreds of ballots had disappeared.

JOYNER: Are you sure that there aren't 800 votes somewhere? Are we missing a box?

DEBORAH LAND: It was wild. When they came and said, well, apparently, we have a discrepancy of 820 votes - what? After all this? What?

BORDEN: Deborah Land was stunned. She's Midland County's elections administrator. And throughout this whole process, Land has maintained that her staff didn't do anything wrong.

LAND: You know, I have worked very hard in this community. I believe in the elections. And for this to have gone as horribly awry as it has, it hurts me.

BORDEN: But mistakes were made, like releasing the wrong results and not training election personnel enough on how to operate new voting machines.

BRANDON HODGES: This election process has been so miserable from every - just about every aspect that you can think of.

BORDEN: Brandon Hodges is the head of a political action committee, which opposed the bond package. Hodges' frustration was on full display at a public meeting, where officials were counting up the paper ballots to figure out what had happened. Was there something wrong with the voting machines? Had the recount results been way off? And then a county staff member found something, a ballot box.

How did they just find a ballot box? They just said, we walked in, and we found it. Like...

HODGES: You see how I'm sweating, Mitch? I can't answer it, dude, because no one know - I mean, it's - I don't know.

BORDEN: For over a month, the county claimed all ballot boxes were accounted for, until they found one they didn't know was lost. Officials cracked it open to find the 800-plus missing ballots. Advocates and opponents are now contesting the botched election, a sign that every vote matters but only if it actually can be counted.

For NPR News, I'm Mitch Borden in Midland, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAX FUTURE'S "CENOTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.