The country’s smallest county has the biggest election contest lawsuits.
Most people can tell you where they live. But here in the least-populated county in the United States, “Where is your home?” can be a trick question laced with dark political meaning. And it has landed a significant percentage of the adult population of Loving County in court.
The sticking point is a political math brainteaser: While Loving County’s U.S. Census population runs around 65, it has approximately 110 registered voters. The inflated roll is due mainly to former residents who have moved away — in some cases decades ago — but who continue to claim the dusty community on the New Mexico border as home for voting purposes.
Some have what appear to be their primary residences just over the county line. Yet others inhabit well-established households hundreds of miles away. Several have little tie to the place other than marrying into longtime local families.
They “have a voter card,” Sheriff Chris Busse told NBC News. “But the only time you see them is when it’s time to vote or at the annual Christmas party.”
Those who’ve physically departed but electorally linger say they simply want to vote where their heart lies, and that they intend to return … someday. Yet to candidates on the losing end of elections, the practice can also look an awful lot like a clique of families threading a legal loophole to keep their kin in power. Over the years lawsuits alleging out-of-town voters skewed the outcome of a political race have been a regular occurrence.
The November 2022 election alone produced three challenges. Candidates for district clerk and county commissioner races came up short by 12 and 6 votes respectively. The unsuccessful justice of the peace candidate, Amber King, tied then lost by 2 votes in a runoff.
All quickly sued, claiming illegal voters had tilted the elections in favor of legacy families such as the powerful Jones clan. “The problem,” said Susan Hays, an attorney representing the losing candidates, “is the Jones family can’t find enough people to vote for them who actually live here. So they manufacture voters” from out-of-town family and friends.
For Hays, a West Texas native who last year run unsuccessfully as the Democratic candidate for agricultural commissioner, cataloguing the domestic lives of Loving County residents has become an arcane legal subspecialty — “not something I planned,” she said.
This is her second election challenge case here. The first, in 2007, reversed a county commissioner’s race and purged more than two dozen out-of-county voters, including several “residents” who’d been granted 2-acre “homes” on a candidate’s ranch just prior to the election.
Hays has compiled a detailed dossier on nearly every resident. She can construct multi-generational family trees from memory and knows not only where people live but also where their couches are placed and what their bed quilts look like. She is often aware of their health problems and finances, their alliances and gossip. She is aware it sounds creepy.
Since November she has been excavating the personal living arrangements of 26 Loving County voters who the losing 2022 candidates claim improperly cost them seats. She has amassed land records and deeds, interior and exterior photos of (allegedly) lightly used houses, as well as testimony from an electricity expert to describe what low kilowatt usage might suggest about whether a house is being used as a residence.
She has a map of Texas showing the not-so-close locations – Amarillo, Lubbock, Fort Worth — where her process-servers tracked down so-called Loving County residents who voted in Mentone. Almost all are extended members of three legacy clans. She pointed out that many claim as local addresses properties sold to them by, or still owned by the Jones family.
“What they all have in common is they claim residence in Loving County so they can vote in support of family,” she said, starting off the trial. “As if voting in the county were some landed gentry birthright.”
Each of the contested voters was hauled up to the witness stand and quizzed on how many days they spend in Mentone, if their trucks run, what medical care they need, where their church-home is, when that room was re-carpeted and that bedstand purchased.
Across the way (each day the courtroom divided up the middle by family, like an angry wedding), Davis and his legal team responded that, despite keeping houses elsewhere, the far-flung voters actually spend an electorally defensible amount of time in Mentone, the place they still recall in sepia tones and consider their true home.
There’s a whole lot more there, so read the rest. Our entry to the wild world of Loving County came via its (allegedly) cattle-rustlin’ County Judge, Skeet Jones, whose family is at the center of all this. That NBC News story, which I noted in passing in that last post of mine above, back when I was just fixated on the alleged cow-stealing, is a must read for some background on Loving County and its bizarre voter-to-population ratio.
Again, go read the whole thing, it’s an epic tale and I will once again invoke the “deserves a prestige podcast” designation. The root of all this is Texas’ notoriously vague and unenforceable residency laws, coupled with the fact that thanks to the recent oil boom, Loving County has way more money than it knows what to do with. (Item: Their Commissioners Court is considering the construction of a $9 million fire station, despite the fact that Loving County has all of two volunteer firefighters.) The trial documented in this story took longer than the Harris County election contest lawsuit; as with the latter, we await a ruling, which will likely be appealed. I feel like I should gather a dozen or so friends, declare our intent to move to Mentone, and see if we can register to vote in Loving. Who knows, maybe I can get elected County Judge.