Poll watchers say they were illegally denied entry into Gillespie County ballot counting room

Investigations

GILLESPIE COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) – As soon as the sun rose on Election Day, Jennette Hormuth and Angela Smith were ready to be locked inside the Gillespie County elections office to watch the county handle ballots and count votes.

The women, both appointed by Republican candidates, were armed with their official applications, which was their ticket into the county’s Central Counting Station.

Hormuth, who identified herself as the “lead poll watcher” for Gillespie County said she handed five separate forms to the presiding judge, Terry Hamilton, and waited for his signature to let them inside to keep an eye on the ballots.

Jeannette Hormuth said she found herself in another battle with Gillespie County elections officials on Nov. 3, 2020 after the county refused to allow her in to watch ballot counting. Hormuth’s rejection note on her poll watcher application shows she was denied access over “current litigation” she filed in 2019 alleging the county elections office committed violations in an election last year. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

“We had five watchers there,” Hormuth told KXAN. “Two of them he (Hamilton) gave them their forms and said they were accepted. Three watchers, including me, Angela and one other, he gave us back our watcher form, but he said you’re rejected, you’re rejected, and you’re rejected.”

“His reason was he said current litigation involving poll watching,” Hormuth said.

State law required Hamilton to write on the form exactly why the women were disqualified. The forms Hormuth and Smith provided KXAN show a note written in blue ink stating, “Rejected due to current litigation involving poll watching.”

Both women said Hamilton handed them the forms and told them to leave the county building.

Hormuth immediately called the Texas Secretary of State’s Office to file a complaint. The SOS sent the county an email reminding the county it’s a criminal act to obstruct a poll watcher.

The crime is a Class A misdemeanor in Texas.

‘Current litigation’

This wasn’t the first time Gillespie County elections officers were accused of obstructing poll watchers. Following the November 2019 election, Hormuth filed an election contest against the city of Fredericksburg, alleging voting irregularities in a local charter amendment election.

The Gillespie County elections office administered that election.

The lawsuit also claimed poll watchers were obstructed in the 2019 election and again in the recount for that same election. Hormuth and two other poll watchers said when they showed up to the Central Counting Station to witness ballot handling and counting set for 9 a.m., the ballots had already been “prepared, grouped, sorted, and stacked in a sealed metal box,” their lawsuit stated.

Meaning, the county had handled ballots without poll watchers there to observe.

Although Hamilton is not named in the lawsuit, he is an employee of the county elections office and was also serving as the presiding judge during Tuesday’s election.

“I’m not authorized to make any comments,” Hamilton told KXAN investigator Jody Barr when contacted by phone on Nov. 6. Hamilton would not disclose his job title and ended the call when asked.

The Texas Election Code authorizes presiding judges to determine whether an individual poll watcher is qualified to serve. Section 33.031 lists eligibility requirements for a poll watcher to serve: be a qualified voter of the county or political subdivision where the election is held.

The statute also lists several grounds for ineligibility, which includes candidates for office if that candidate’s election is held the same day, relatives or employees of an election officer, a current office holder or a person previously convicted of any election offense.

The statute does not indicate “current litigation” as a legal basis to reject a poll watcher’s application to serve.

“And, I tried to ask him that question, but basically they didn’t really want to discuss it. He’s in charge and we’re out and the police are there saying ‘If you don’t leave, you’re going to be taken for trespassing,’” Hormuth told KXAN.

“It’s not in the election code,” Hormuth said of Hamilton’s decision to shut her out.

The state responds

Jeannette Hormuth said she’s served in three separate elections in Gillespie County. Each time, she’s documented and reported what she believes are criminal violations to the Texas Secretary of State.

She sued following the November 2019 election. In the March 2020 primary election Hormuth said she decided to call the SOS to report the violations.  

“They are entitled to sit or stand conveniently near the officers conducting the observed activity. I was told that you all had sectioned off part of the CCS (Central Counting Station) for poll watchers, and that the presiding judge is prohibiting the poll watchers from getting close enough to the equipment to observe the counting/tabulating activity,” the Secretary of State’s Elections Division’s Legal Director, Christina Adkins wrote in a March 3, 2020 email to Gillespie County Elections Administrator, Anissa Herrera.

“Poll watchers do have a right to watch these activities and prohibiting them from doing so is a criminal act,” Adkins continued in the email.

Hormuth said the obstruction continued in March and the exact same thing happened when poll watchers showed up for Tuesday’s presidential election. This time, Hamilton refused to allow Hormuth or Smith into the counting station and the same poll watcher “holding pen” was roped off against a wall near the door.

A poll watcher sketched this diagram of the Gillespie County Central Counting Station as it looked on Election Day. The drawing shows the area roped off for poll watchers to stand, which the watchers said prevented them from being able to see any of the ballots or tabulation machines. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

Hormuth’s call to the Secretary of State’s Office on Tuesday led to another email from the office to Herrera.

“The election code outlines certain eligibility requirements for poll watchers and after speaking to the poll watchers, I’m not understanding why they have been refused entry,” Adkins wrote to Herrera at 10:57 a.m. on Nov. 3, 2020.

“Please be advised that if a person who serves in an official capacity at a location at which the presence of the watcher is authorized knowingly prevents a watcher from observing an activity, it is a Class A Misdemeanor,” Adkins continued in the email. Adkins also copied Gillespie County Attorney Steve Wadsworth to the email.

Wadsworth’s office prosecutes misdemeanors in Gillespie County.

Hormuth said she returned to the elections office an hour after the SOS email and handed Hamilton a second application to be allowed into the counting station to poll watch. Hormuth provided KXAN a second rejection where Hamilton wrote, “Rejected due to breach of peace earlier in the day,” with a note of 12:04 p.m.

Hormuth said she was eventually allowed in to watch the ballot counting 10 hours after she was first denied access.

We requested an interview with Herrera, but she denied the request. Herrera said she had to check with Gillespie County Judge Mark Stroeher, who she identified as her supervisor. Stroeher is also the chair of the county’s elections commission, the body that appointed Herrera.

“Until I have been contacted by the SOS office, we feel we did everything appropriately and beyond that, I am not authorized to make a comment,” Herrera told KXAN.

 Stroeher denied he had supervisory authority over Herrera in an email sent to KXAN on Nov. 6 in response to an interview request.

“Ms. Herrera did contact both me and the County Attorney yesterday (Thursday) requesting advice concerning your desire to interview her concerning a complaint that may have been filed with the Secretary of State’s office,” Stroeher wrote to Barr. “My understanding is that the County Attorney informed Ms. Herrera that the Secretary of State’s office may follow-up and investigate the validity of any claims, and therefore, advised Ms. Herrera that it would probably be better not to comment prior to a potential investigation by the SOS’s office.  I agreed and advised Ms. Herrera that it probably would not be prudent to make a comment at this time.”

Neither Hormuth nor Smith alleged any fraud was committed concerning the ballot counting in Gillespie County, but both said they really couldn’t be sure because they were locked out of the process.

“The whole thing is for integrity, for openness and transparency, so we all should be working on this together to make sure that the election is — the people can be confident that the election was on the up and up and that your vote counted,” Hormuth said.

Both women lauded Texas’ election laws, arguing they’re some of the best in the country.

“You can track the whole chain of custody of those ballots from point A to B to C to D of everything all the way; it’s supposed to be very transparent,” Hormouth said.

“The problem is for the last 30 years, those laws have not been really followed — we’re followed — we’re finding out — in Texas, not just here — but and part of it is that nobody’s been paying attention,” Hormuth told KXAN.

Hormuth and Smith are working on filing formal complaints with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, seeking a criminal investigation into the allegations of poll watcher obstruction. Their complaints could be filed sometime next week.

If the Secretary of State finds reason to believe an offense happened, a formal request for a criminal investigation of the allegations would be filed with the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

“We just feel like we’re being met with –” “Disdain,” Smith said, finishing Hormuth’s thought.

“Desdain,” Hormuth said in agreement.

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