Assemble all the facts, rumors, conjecture and findings of the McLennan County Elections Commission regarding the March 1 joint primary election debacle that left some voters feeling disenfranchised over a narrowly decided county commissioner race and you get at least two possible scenarios.
Scenario One: Longtime, much-respected McLennan County Elections Administrator Kathy Van Wolfe was undermined by a disloyal employee, Karen Hall, who failed to carry out her assigned tasks and lied about it. Weeks later Van Wolfe fired Hall, her second-in-command, saying the errors in the election “continue to haunt this office.”
Scenario Two: Van Wolfe was out of her depth in electoral complexities, failed to smartly anticipate necessary changes in Election Day protocol and, after problems erupted, scapegoated Hall as well as an election equipment vendor, election judges, poll workers and even ignorant voters in a frantic, month-long bid to keep her job.
What makes all this ironic is that, if Hall’s account in Thursday’s Trib is credible, Van Wolfe after the March 1 election nonetheless had Hall employ her technological savvy in setting up May 7 city and school elections and the May 24 primary election runoff — and then, after having Hall do last-minute trouble-shooting on March 28, called her to a meeting with the county’s personnel director and handed her a detailed termination notice carefully prepared in advance.
“She was totally using me so that all the May elections would be done before she kicked me out the door,” Hall told the Trib. “And if I’m a liar and my honesty and integrity are being questioned, why do you have me doing that?”
So much for McLennan County’s first joint primary election employing “vote centers,” allowing voters to cast ballots anywhere in the county. Election Day brought unexpectedly long lines and several hundred incorrectly issued ballots, raising doubts about the Precinct 1 county commissioner race and prompting a legal challenge.
To add intrigue to all this, one wing of the local Republican Party supposedly got crossways with Van Wolfe some time ago, figuring Hall might better serve the public. Hall denies any involvement in such moves but says the talk poisoned relations with her boss.
My impression of the elections office over the years: Van Wolfe had the management smarts and a solid grasp of election law as well as shifting voter patterns throughout our growing county; Hall had the technological chops necessary to put it all to work. In short, Van Wolfe knew where all the light switches were, Hall knew how to take them apart and fix the wiring when necessary. Nothing wrong there.
So long as Van Wolfe managed with the right balance of resolve, energy, diplomacy and know-how, all should have run smoothly. However, her termination notice for Hall — obtained through a public information request by Trib staff writer Cassie L. Smith — suggests office problems that, as Van Wolfe correctly wrote, “caused major errors, additional costs, tremendous stress and a voting population that is suspect of the election office’s future capability to perform competent, error-free elections.”
But where did these problems arise? Did Van Wolfe’s second-in-command fail to conduct all the electoral tests required of her (as Van Wolfe claims) or was she never assigned all the electoral tests to ensure a smooth election (as Hall claims)? And who trained election judges on relevant election protocol, for how long, in what areas? One might argue the local elections commission is right that such details are not really the province of the commission and should be left to Van Wolfe to properly handle. Yet what if the reluctance of the commission to aggressively scrutinize the situation results in more problems? In any case, the elections commission dismissed Hall’s request to furnish evidence in this imbroglio.
One might think May elections would vindicate one side or the other in this she said/she said spectacle, but given that Hall apparently worked on these before getting the boot, who can really say? One thing’s sure: Considering that election fraud is such a concern in Texas, it’s amazing a lot of this is being given a pass. One wonders how county commissioners will react upon receiving the election commission’s final report.
Many Americans like to talk about the right to vote being sacred, but in this case plenty of people treated it as something far less — probably more than we’ll ever fully realize or admit.