Midland County officials just found a missing ballot box. It may change the result of a $569 million bond election.

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Updated: Dec. 16, 2019 at 9:52 PM CST
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By Stacy Fernández, The Texas Tribune Dec. 16, 2019

"Midland County officials just found a missing ballot box. It may change the result of a $569 million bond election." was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

*correction appended

A proposal for a $569 million bond to build two new high school buildings in Midland failed by 25 votes in the November election, a margin slim enough it set off calls for a recount.

The ballots were recounted manually, and to the delight of Midland ISD officials, the results flipped and the proposal passed by a margin of 11 votes.

But last week, a Midland elections staffer found a box on the bottom of a shelf in the office containing 836 ballots that weren't tallied in the recount. Those votes threaten to again reverse the election results, which school officials are counting on to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for school construction.

The elections office obtained a court order to open the ballot box on Monday morning, when staffers began to count up the missing votes.

The first and unofficial vote tally on Nov. 5, which used the electronic ballots, took the missing ballots into account. The paper ballots are a physical copy of how constituents voted on the electronic system. The paper ballots came into play during the manual recount, which was missing the more than 800 ballots, making the recount number inaccurate.

The revelation of the vote discrepancy doesn't automatically change the election result, however. The result of the manual recount was canvassed — or made official — on Nov. 15, when it was signed by County Judge Terry Johnson.

But last week, representatives for Better Bond for Midland, the special political action committee opposing the bond, filed to contest the election results. We Choose Our Future, the SPAC in favor of the bond will also contest.

The missing ballot box is just the latest reversal in a roller coaster ride for this particular bond proposal. On election night, Midland voters watching the polls closely initially believed the bond passed by 18 votes, because of the results posted on Midland County's election website. But minutes after the posting, officials clarified to reporters that the tally didn't include mail-in votes, which revealed it had failed by 25 votes that night, according to the Midland Reporter-Telegram. We Choose Our Future quickly called for the recount.

The Office of the Secretary of State has advised Midland officials of how to proceed and “will continue to provide appropriate assistance to Midland County officials as this matter proceeds forward,” wrote Stephen Chang, a representative of the office.

Deborah Land, elections administrator for the Midland County Elections Office, said she might have been the one to have moved the ballot box in question that led to it not being counted, but she's not positive.

“It was human error,” Land said, adding that the office will learn from the blunder and do things differently come the next election.

In her five years working in the elections office, Land said she’s never seen something like this happen before.

The deputy secretary of state and the director of elections were in Midland on Monday to observe the ballot count and advise local officials, according to a tweet by State Sen. Kel Seliger, who represents the area.

“Every Texan deserves to have full faith in our elections process,” Seliger wrote in a tweet.

Correction: An earlier version of this story provided the wrong number for how many votes the bond issue failed by on election night, and incorrectly stated how the recount was initiated.

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