Laura Pressley and three others huddled inside a Fredericksburg courtroom on Monday, bowing their heads, closing their eyes, holding hands, and starting to pray quietly.
“In Jesus’ name, Amen,” the group muttered, just moments before the trial in their lawsuit challenging the results of a three-year-old city election began.
Their prayers do not appear to answer. 216th District Court Judge Stephen Ables denied the relief they sought almost immediately after arguments concluded on Monday. He stated that he would not overturn the election.
“I had to conclude that these ‘irregularities’ influenced the election results,” he explained. “I don’t believe I have the legal authority to do so.”
Jeannette Hormuth, a poll watcher, anti-fluoride activist, and Fredericksburg local election judge Jerry Farley filed a lawsuit against Fredericksburg’s former mayor in early 2020.
The lawsuit accused the city of election fraud in connection with the defeat of a 2019 proposal to remove fluoride from the city’s water system. On Monday, Hormuth and Farley represent in court by Pressley’s Austin-based attorney, Roger Borgelt.
In a long time, it is the most recent line of legal setbacks for Pressley. A long-time Central Texas anti-fluoride activist, conspiracy theorist, perennial candidate for office, and self-styled poll watcher trainer who even has her own state political action committee.
The Texas Supreme Court has dismissed at least two lawsuits she filed against the secretary of state this year, alleging that the office is not following election law. According to election experts and advocates, this pattern promotes misinformation, wastes resources, and may jeopardize the election process.
“You see this manoeuvre among these fringe conspiratorial organizations. Where they say a lot of times that ‘there’s reason to believe that there’s a fraud in the election system, but what they point to is, at best, deviations from the procedure,” said James Slattery, senior attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project’s voting rights program. “This is just one tactic in a larger strategy to undermine trust in elections.”
One lawsuit, dismissed by a judge last month, sought to compel the secretary of state to retract advice given to counties about using randomly numbered ballots. Borgelt told Votebeat that he had already requested a rehearing of the decision.
Experts have repeatedly warned that the practice advocated by Pressley’s supporters — consecutively numbering ballots — could facilitate election fraud. A consecutive number of ballots can also help identify voters. and aren’t required for audits.
A separate lawsuit, dismissed in February by a judge, sought to direct the secretary of state to direct election officials to print early voting result tapes immediately following early voting rather than waiting until polls closed on Election Day.
Texas vote-fraud activists led by Laura Pressley lose lawsuit over 2019 fluoride election https://t.co/bqe4nEFWyS
— Votebeat (@VotebeatUS) October 14, 2022
“This is disappointing,” Pressley said after the judge’s decision in the Fredericksburg case was announced. “It, I believe, conveys the message that we are not required to follow the law.”
However, Pressley’s interpretation of the law differs significantly from that of Secretary of State John Scott’s office.
“Our office is following and has always followed Texas law,” Sam Taylor, assistant secretary of state for communications, said in a statement.
The trial in Fredericksburg drew about 30 people on Monday, most of whom appeared to be elderly and in favour of the suit. Many people came into the courtroom with pens and notepads and spent the entire trial taking notes.
Hormuth, Farley, and their supporters in Gillespie County argued that Pressley has been making for years. After losing a race for Austin City Council in 2014, she claimed irregularities and unsuccessfully sought a rematch.
Since then, she has spent her time suing counties across the state on similar allegations, training hundreds of poll watchers, and filing grievances against the Texas secretary of state’s office for allegedly violating Texas election law.
Now, Gillespie, Hormuth, and Farley claim that election officials “engaged in illegal conduct” that resulted in potential fraud, and they want a new election. Another local activist, Angela Smith, claimed that local officials had broken several election laws. None provided evidence of fraud.
They claimed that poll workers were “obstructed” on election night and during the recount, that more than 400 ballots were not signed by an election judge and thus should not have been counted; and that more than 30 ballots were missing.
To refute the allegations, Fredericksburg City Attorney Daniel Jones called witnesses, including the 2019 election judge who failed to sign the ballot. When Jones inquired why he did not sign the polls, He claimed to have “completely forgotten.”
The secretary of state’s office reports that the law requires. An unsigned ballot is to be rejected. If an election judge determines that the votes are not distributed to voters at the polling place. On Monday, the election judge testified that the ballots were distributed to voters at the assigned polling place. No one has questioned the eligibility of the voters who cast those ballots.
Meanwhile, Hormuth testified about the claim that poll observers couldn’t see what was going on. “I was more of a bystander.” They appeared to be against everyone to see them watching. “It felt secretive,” Hormuth said, referring to how far away election officials told her to stand after polls closed on election day.
Suspicions of secrecy and obstruction dominated the two-hour trial. As Pressley nodded and smiled from the first row of the courtroom, Hormuth, Smith, and Farley cited their interpretations of the election code to support their claims. Their testimony, however, was not enough to win the case.
Terry Hamilton, a former Gillespie County elections worker, testified as well on Monday.
“They shouldn’t be poll watchers if they can’t see from three feet away,” Hamilton said. People in the audience laughed and gasped in mockery at Hamilton’s testimony.
“The statute [relating to poll watching] does not specify distances; it simply states that they must sit or stand conveniently near the activity,” Jones, the city attorney, said after the proceedings were completed. “The law backed up the arguments I was making. “I’m relieved the court agreed.”
Expert on Election Administration
Tammy Patrick, a Democracy Fund senior adviser and an expert on election administration, believes that an error or omission by election workers should not prevent eligible voters from exercising their right to vote.
“Our neighbour elected officials.” They essentially volunteer because they are not well compensated. And they have a lot of responsibilities on election day,” Patrick explained. “As a result, things will undoubtedly be missed.” Is it ideal? No way, no how. But does this imply that there was fraud or that the election was invalid? Certainly not.”
The Fredericksburg trial was the latest in a series of stumbling blocks erected by Pressley and others for local officials. Only months before the problem, the entire town’s elections office staff resigned. Partly because conspiracy, harassment, and lawsuit threats had taken over their daily lives.
“Threats against election officials and my election staff. Dangerous misinformation, a lack of full-time personnel for the elections office, unpaid compensation, and absurd legislation has completely changed the job I initially accepted,” Anissa Herrera wrote in an August 2 resignation letter.
Hamilton said on Monday that he relieve the trial had ended the dispute.
“This is completed. “This has been bothering me for years,” Authority explained. “I’m sick of it.”
According to Williamson County Elections Administrator Chris Davis, Pressley has a long history of being a thorn in the side of election officials worldwide.
Davis stated that election judges in Williamson County repeatedly reported Pressley-trained poll watchers calling ballots “illegal”. Because they numbered sequentially. Arguing about poll watchers’ access to central counting stations. However, Davis and other election officials said they are confident that counties’ procedures are correct and follow Texas election laws.
“When the judges call, we tell them to keep working. To give the poll watcher a warning that if they disrupt you or the process again. We can have them removed,” Davis explained. “I don’t believe [the lawsuits] will have any effect.” We have documentation that we are following the Secretary of State’s office rules.”
Some audience members appeared unaware that the judge had ruled against the suit. After the judge adjourned the case, the room was peaceful. Then a grey-haired man in the audience inquired, “So, did we win?”
Several other people responded in unison.