FREDERICKSBURG — Laura Pressley and three other people huddled inside a Fredericksburg courtroom Monday, bowing their heads, closing their eyes, holding hands, and beginning to pray in hushed voices.
“In Jesus’ name, Amen,” the group whispered, just moments before the trial was set to begin in their lawsuit contesting the results of a three-year-old city election.
Their prayers appear to have gone unanswered. On Monday, almost immediately after arguments concluded, 216th District Court Judge Stephen Ables denied the relief they sought. He would not, he said, overturn the election.
“I had to make a finding that these ‘irregularities’ changed the results of the election,” he said. “I don’t think I have the basis to do that.”
The lawsuit was filed against Fredericksburg’s former mayor in early 2020 by poll watcher and anti-fluoride activist Jeannette Hormuth and local election judge Jerry Farley of Fredericksburg. The suit claimed election malfeasance in connection with the defeat of a 2019 proposal to remove fluoride from the city’s water system. Pressley’s Austin-based attorney, Roger Borgelt, represented Hormuth and Farley in court Monday.
It is the latest in a string of court losses for Pressley, a long-time Central Texas anti-fluoride activist, conspiracy theorist, perennial candidate for office, and self-styled trainer for poll watchers who even has her own state political action committee. This year alone, the Texas Supreme Court has dismissed at least two lawsuits she filed against the secretary of state, in which she claims the office isn’t following election law. This pattern, election experts and advocates say, promotes misinformation, wastes resources, and could further harm the election process.
“You see this maneuver among these fringe conspiratorial organizations where a lot of times they say that ‘there’s reason to believe that there’s fraud’ in the election system, but what they point to are, at worst, deviations from procedure,” said James Slattery, senior attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project’s voting rights program. “This is merely one tactic in that broader strategy to undermine faith in elections.”
One lawsuit, tossed out by a judge last month, sought to direct the secretary of state to retract advice the office gave counties about the use of randomly numbered ballots. Borgelt told Votebeat he’d already filed a motion for a rehearing on the decision.
Experts have time and time again said the practice Pressley’s allies advocate — consecutively numbering ballots — could facilitate election fraud. Consecutively numbered ballots could also more easily make voters identifiable, and aren’t necessary for audits. A separate lawsuit, dismissed by a judge in February, sought to direct the secretary of state to ask election officials to print early voting result tapes immediately after early voting instead of waiting until polls close on Election Day.
“This is disappointing,” Pressley told Votebeat after the judge’s ruling in the Fredericksburg case. “I think it sends the message that we don’t have to follow the law.”
But Pressley’s interpretation of the law departs drastically from the interpretation of Secretary of State John Scott’s office.
“Our office is following and has always followed Texas law, and continues to provide ample guidance and weekly training for county election officials on how to make sure the Texas Election Code is being properly followed as we head into the upcoming General Election,” Sam Taylor, assistant secretary of state, for communications said in a statement.
The Fredericksburg lawsuit and trial
The trial Monday in Fredericksburg drew a crowd of about 30 people, the majority of whom appeared to be elderly and in support of the suit. Many came into the courtroom with pens and notepads and spent the entirety of the trial taking notes.
The arguments made by Hormuth, Farley, and their supporters in Gillespie County echoed arguments Pressley has been making for years. In 2014, after losing a race for Austin City Council, she claimed irregularities and unsuccessfully sought a new election. She has spent the time since suing counties across the state over similar allegations, training hundreds of poll watchers, and filing grievances against the Texas secretary of state’s office for — she says — violating Texas election law.
Now, in Gillespie, she, Hormuth, and Farley have claimed that election officials “engaged in illegal conduct” that led to potential fraud, and they are also seeking a new election. Angela Smith, another local activist, claimed local officials had violated a laundry list of election laws. None offered any proof of fraud.
They said poll watchers were “obstructed” on election night and during a recount of the votes; that more than 400 ballots were not signed by an election judge and shouldn’t have been counted; and that more than 30 ballots were missing. Fredericksburg City Attorney Daniel Jones called witnesses to rebut the allegations, including the 2019 election judge who failed to sign the ballots in question. When Jones asked why he didn’t sign the ballots, he said he just “completely forgot.”
According to the secretary of state’s office, the law specifies that an unsigned ballot should be rejected if the election judge determines the ballots were not provided to voters at the polling place. The election judge on Monday testified that the ballots were provided to voters at the polling place that he was assigned to. No one has questioned whether the voters who cast those ballots were eligible.
Meanwhile, Hormuth testified about the claim that poll watchers couldn’t see proceedings. “I was more of a spectator. It was like they didn’t want watchers there. It felt secretive,” Hormuth said, referring to how far away election officials told her to stand while she observed proceedings at the central counting station after polls had closed on election night.
Suspicions about secrecy and obstruction dominated the two-hour trial. Hormuth, Smith, and Farley cited their interpretation of the election code to justify their claims, as Pressley nodded and smiled from the first row of the courtroom. But their testimony didn’t carry the day.
Terry Hamilton, one of the former Gillespie County elections workers, also testified Monday.
“If they can’t see from three feet away, then they shouldn’t be a poll watcher,” Hamilton said. People in the audience gasped and laughed, mocking Hamilton’s testimony.
“The statute [related to poll watching] doesn’t specify distances, it just says they need to sit or stand conveniently near the activity,” said Jones, the city attorney, after proceedings concluded. “The law supported the arguments that I was making. I’m glad the court agreed.”
Tammy Patrick, an expert on election administration and a senior adviser for the Democracy Fund, said an oversight or omission by election workers shouldn’t negate the access of an eligible voter to the franchise.
“Election officials are our neighbors. They’re basically volunteers because they don’t get paid very much. And they have a lot of tasks that they are responsible for on election day,” Patrick said. “And so it’s absolutely the case that things will be missed. Is it optimal? No, of course not. But does that mean that there’s fraud or that the election was illegitimate? Absolutely not.”
“This is done”
The Fredericksburg trial was the latest in a string of roadblocks set up for local officials by Pressley and others. Only months before the trial, the entire staff of the elections office in town resigned, partly because their daily lives had become overtaken by conspiracy, harassment, and threats of lawsuits.
“The threats against election officials and my election staff, dangerous misinformation, lack of full time personnel for the elections office, unpaid compensation, and absurd legislation have completely changed the job I initially accepted,” Anissa Herrera wrote in her resignation letter, dated August 2.
On Monday, Hamilton said he was glad the trial finally brought an end to the dispute.
“This is done. I’ve been dealing with this for years,” he said. “I’m tired of it.”
Williamson County Elections Administrator Chris Davis said Pressley has long had a reputation as a thorn in the side of election administrators across the state.
Davis said election judges in Williamson County have repeatedly reported Pressley-trained poll watchers describing ballots as “illegal” because they’re not consecutively numbered and arguing over the access poll watchers should have in central counting stations. But Davis said he and other election officials are confident that the procedures counties follow are correct and in compliance with Texas election laws.
“When the judges call, we tell them ‘keep doing your work and give the poll watcher a warning that if they disrupt you again or the process, we can have them removed,’” Davis said. “I don’t think [the lawsuits] will change anything. We have documentation that we’re following the rules of the secretary of state’s office.”
Right after the judge adjourned the case, some in the crowd seemed to not understand that the judge had ruled against the suit. The room was quiet. Then, a gray-haired man in the crowd asked, “So did we win?”
In unison, several other people responded.
Natalia Contreras is a reporter for Votebeat in partnership with the Texas Tribune. Contact Natalia at firstname.lastname@example.org.