Smith County officials approved a list of poll workers from the Republican Party on Tuesday, telling former poll workers that they were bound by state law from influencing the list.
The Smith County Commissioners Court voted 4-0, with Commissioner JoAnn Hampton absent, to approve a list of 34 election judges for the Nov. 5 election that had been approved by Smith County Republican Party Chairman Brent Thompson.
The approval ended a weekslong dispute over Thompson and his staff’s decision to bring in new people to serve as election judges and not reappoint certain longtime members of the Republican Party, some of whom Thompson says are not eligible.
“I stand with these people who have put themselves forward to work, and I don’t appreciate the meddling and public meddling of certain members of this county to try to politicize and have this argument in the press,” Thompson said in an interview.
“Because this is an internal process that the chairman and his team undertakes every election year, we follow the letter of the law as we always will and always have,” he said. “This list completely follows it.”
The 34 election judges on the list will serve from September through August, overseeing polling places in partnership with judges from the Democratic Party for the Nov. 5 general election and the March 3 primary.
More than 20 people who opposed Thompson’s list showed up to the Commissioners Court to express their views. A handful spoke, including ones who made personal attacks on Thompson, primary administrator Patricia Ayub, and one of the new election judges.
Sharon Guthrie, who represents a precinct near Hollytree and is an employee of a state representative, spoke on behalf of more than a dozen people. She said many of them have been election judges for years, one dating back to 1980.
“Over time you learn more your experience counts, and you know what it is you’re going to be dealing with,” Guthrie said. “There are always people who have never signed up to vote and they think they ought to get to vote in the election.
“You have people now with election fraud who want to vote who aren’t even citizens and shouldn’t be voting,” she said. “And so I just want to express my thanks and appreciation for these men and women who have kept the integrity of the election process.
Guthrie said many of them “have now been replaced by people with inexperience, and that’s just due to the whim of a Republican county chairman that is a vindictive person,” referring to Thompson.
County Judge Nathaniel Moran said in response: “I was precinct chairman like 15 years ago in 2004 and it’s a tough job, so thank you for all that you guys are doing for the party and for each of your precincts. It’s a tough job and sometimes an unappreciated job.”
Thompson, who did not attend the meeting, said in an interview he has removed some people from election judge duties based on his reading of the Texas Election Code. Examples he gave included being a state employee, serving as a treasurer on the campaign of someone on the ballot, or being in a contested election.
“We just wanted to build a better party, and it came to my attention that these things were happening, and they won’t happen under my watch,” Thompson said. “This is a new day. I want the county to have full confidence in my primary administrator.”
Thompson also criticized Guthrie’s comments about being an election judge for 28 years. “We are not here to hold seats or positions for 28 years for anybody,” he said. “That absolutely goes against the principles of the Republican Party.”
The Commissioners Court held an executive session Tuesday to discuss the Republican election judge list, under a section of state law that allows such private meetings for pending or contemplated litigation. It is not clear what litigation has been filed or is being contemplated.
After the executive session, Smith County elections administrator Karen Nelson gave a presentation about how her office plans to train election judges. She said there would be a combination of different training types for new and returning election judges.
After Nelson spoke, Sharon Emmert, a former member of the Commissioners Court and former primary administrator for the Republican Party, told the court how she did the job before she retired. Patricia Ayub has taken her place.
Emmert also thanked Moran for attempting to sit down with Thompson regarding this issue, and Commissioner Jeff Warr for being willing to sit down with Emmert and others “to correct the list and get the qualified people back on.” She added “and as you all know our party chairman rejected that.”
She said in her conclusion: “For whatever reason, Brent is bent on revenge and he has decided to take revenge against these precinct chairs who are prepared to do their job, and so I’m concerned. I’m sad for our precinct chairs who have been so disrespected, and I’m concerned about primary day most of all.”
Ayub told the Commissioners Court how she came up with the election judge list that the Commissioners Court tabled on Aug. 27.
“I was asked to do this simply because the chairman felt that we needed to bring in some young, minorities, inexperienced and to try to just help change the face and the look of what the party was,” Ayub said. “That was basically my only criteria in finding who was on there.”
Ayub said the names came from a combination of new people who needed to be introduced to the party, and the party’s internal lists containing names of people who have been involved in auxiliary clubs.
When she heard there was concern about new people’s experience, Ayub said she called almost everyone on the list to find out what kind of training they thought they needed and agreed that the party would provide it. She said the list approved Tuesday included some minor changes, but is substantially the same as the Aug. 27 list.
“I’m a little bit concerned when they say that they’re inexperienced or they don’t even know if they’re Republicans or they don’t know this country,” Ayub said. “These are people that have been working with them for years.”
Ayub said she’s also been in touch with the Republican Party of Texas to make sure everyone can get adequate training. At the same time, she said she did not want to assume that people would fail before they had a chance to try.
“I’m so grateful to everyone who has done it,” Ayub said of election judges. “I’m so grateful to everyone who has participated in the past and (will participate) in the future.”
Craig Licciardi, a precinct chair, disputed Ayub’s statement about calling people on the election judge list saying he only knew of one person who had received a call.
“I’m sorry that we even have to have this conversation,” Licciardi told the court. “We’re all adults and we should be acting that way.”
Shawnia Partridge, a former election judge, criticized the person who will be working instead of her. After Moran told her not to criticize specific people, Partridge said, “Not everyone on this list is trainable. I’m serious, not trainable.”
Following the discussion, the Commissioners Court passed an order, which is essentially a county law, requiring that election judges have some form of experience working at the polls, including experience in lower-level volunteer positions. The vote was 4-0.
Moran said the order would not affect this year’s Republican list because the Commissioners Court cannot impose new restrictions on a list that already has been submitted.
“That will give fair notice to both parties that moving forward in future years, we need to see experience from those that are on the list for election judges,” Moran said.
The Commissioners Court then approved the Republican list of election judges on a 4-0 vote. Members told critics of the election judge list that the Commissioners Court is bound by state law to approve the list and could not make changes.
“The statute is clear,” Moran said. “We have looked at this from a lot of different angles and practically speaking tried to work with both sides that were involved in this to try to come up with a list that would be satisfactory to both.
“I haven’t gotten to that point to date,” Moran said. “We have a list from the Smith County Republican chair, and the statute is clear that we shall approve that list. It does not give us discretion. It is called a ministerial duty on behalf of this court.”
Commissioner Jeff Warr said: “We did delay to give time for the parties to try to come to some agreement.” He said the purpose behind that was not partisan but to support good elections.
“Being in the insurance business, the first thing you do is start with the facts,” Warr said. “The facts are the county chair, it’s his obligation and responsibility to submit and we approve it. It didn’t say that we can alter it, change it, delay it, submit our own.”
Commissioner Terry Phillips said: “I want to reiterate, after speaking to legal counsel, we have no discretion. We shall approve this list that was given to us by the party chair that says he shall give us the list.
“And this was all done by our legislators telling us we have to do it and so there’s no discretion here whatsoever on our part, so I just want the people that has contacted me to know that I agree with the things that they said but I have no discretion in doing anything different,” Phillips said.
Nelson, the elections administrator, told the Commissioners Court she found 10 on the list who had never worked in a polling place, and another five that had worked in polling places as clerks, but not as election judges.
“Best case scenario would be for us to have brand new people serve as a clerk and then move up to the judge because it is such a tremendous responsibility,” Nelson said. “I just want to let the court know that we’re going to do all we can to train.”
Assistant District Attorney Thomas Wilson, who advises the Commissioners Court, repeated his legal opinion.
“This is unambiguous legal language in the statute that you are required to approve this list submitted by the Republican Party, and the court shall appoint the first person meeting the applicable eligibility requirements,” Wilson said.
The only eligibility requirement in effect for the list approved Tuesday was that the person be a qualified voter in the precinct where they serve as a judge, he said.
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