State District Judge David Rogers ruled that 10 Loving County voters did not have enough connection to the area to legally vote there. As a result, two local November 2022 elections must be redone because the number of ineligible voters exceeded the winner’s margin of victory.
The ruling came after a September trial in which three losing candidates challenged their results by claiming voters who lived outside Loving County had improperly tipped the election in favor of powerful legacy families. Rogers concluded the contest for justice of the peace, which resulted in a 39-39 tie before being decided by two votes in a reelection, will have to be repeated, as will a county commissioner’s race decided by six votes. The county/district clerk, who won by 12 votes, can keep her job.
Although election challenges aren’t unheard of, tossing out race results and ordering up a new contest is very uncommon, said Eric Opiela, an Austin attorney who specializes in election law.
That is especially true for cases that turn on residency, where the answer to a seemingly simple question — “Where do you live?” — can be difficult to unravel thanks to vague state laws that permit plenty of wiggle room. Opiela said such cases might pop up once a decade in Texas — the exception being in Loving County, which alone has had three since 1996.
Lawyers for the current office holders — Clerk Mozelle Carr, Justice of the Peace Angela Medlin and Commissioner Ysidro Renteria — declined or did not respond to requests for comment. So it is unclear if they will appeal Rogers’ ruling.
Susan Hays, the attorney representing challengers Holly Jones, Amber King and James Alan Sparks, said her clients were still pondering an appeal. She called the decision mixed, noting she was disappointed in some of the judge’s determinations on individual voters, as well as his ruling the reelections would be administered by the county clerk — Mozelle Carr, whose challenged results will stand.
Still, she added, the disqualification of just under half of the voters she challenged “is a great step to cleaning up the corruption in that county.”
Unlike other election trials, which can drone on about technical election processes that may have been improper, the two-week Loving County trial at times literally aired the community’s dirty laundry.
Texas law permits people to vote in a place other than where they currently live so long as they have some physical presence, the dislocation is temporary and they intend to return at some point. But the same law also inconveniently declines to define what is a presence, how long is temporary or when the statute of limitations on intentions expires.
Home “is a state of mind, essentially,” Opiela said. “Very few election cases are brought on the question of residency, just because it’s so darn hard to prove.”
In their lawsuit, the 2022 election losers challenged just over two dozen voters as having illegally cast ballots in Loving County elections while living elsewhere. Rogers determined that 10 did not make the residency cut because of “clear and compelling” evidence.
Senaida Polanco, for example, has lived outside of Loving County for more than 40 years, in the Fort Worth area, where she lists her address on her driver’s license and takes a homestead tax exemption on her home. She testified she visited Mentone and stayed at the old family home once or twice a year, and that while she intends to return someday, her plans are vague.
“All of the documentary evidence shows Senaida lives in Fort Worth and has for years,” the judge wrote. “She is not a resident of Loving County.”
Mozelle Carr’s daughter — Judge Jones’ niece — RayChel Lowrance was born in Odessa and attended college and then settled in Lubbock, where her husband, Wesley, has a real estate business and they raised their children. Yet both claimed a doublewide owned by the family ranch in Mentone as their “permanent” residence and registered to vote in Loving County two months before the November 2022 election, court documents show.
“The documentary evidence and much of the testimony shows that the Lowrances live in Lubbock,” Judge Rogers wrote. “They are not legal residents of Loving County.”
Especially hard hit by the ruling were members of the extended Renteria clan, whose relatives first settled a farm in the Pecos River floodplain in the 1940s.
Last year, many family members were still claiming the weathered group of buildings just outside of Mentone as their permanent residence for voting purposes, even though they spent the vast majority of their time elsewhere. An energy use expert also testified that utility records indicated “it was improbable that anyone was residing on the property.” Rogers determined six Renterias who’d voted last year in Loving County were not legal residents.
See here for the most recent update. It’s been quite the year for little Loving County, between this and the adventures of cattle-rustlin’ Judge Skeet Jones, so you might want to refresh your memory on the larger story. You may wonder why anyone really cares about the political fortunes of a county with a hundred people in it; the short answer is that thanks to its oil and gas reserves, Loving County is awash in money, much of which gets into the county’s budget and thus the hands of its elected officials. For someone like me, I mean this thing is like catnip. How can you not be fascinated by it?
What happens next is complicated. There may be appeals of this ruling, which could take years to resolve. If there’s no appeal or if the ruling is allowed to stand pending appeal, there will need to be new elections for those two offices, with an amended voter roll. And, there could be a criminal investigation of any and all of the people who were declared to not be Loving County voters. As the story notes, one of the things the Lege did in 2021 was pass a law that makes it a crime to “establish residence for the purpose of influencing the outcome of a certain election.” Sure seems like that might apply here, though sustaining a criminal charge is a higher bar to clear, and I can’t imagine Ken Paxton has any interest in this since it contradicts the preferred narrative of “voter fraud”. But at this point anything is possible.