An investigation into criminal vote tampering took a step forward Tuesday as the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court approved a $110,000 appropriation for a grand jury to hire an election machine auditor. Commissioners approved the payment, which came from seized gambling funds at the District Attorney’s Office, to go toward a grand jury investigation. The grand jury is expected to hire a Chicago-based forensic analyst to investigate possible tampering with electronic voting machines used in the March 4 Democratic primary, said Murray Moore, a DA’s Office attorney supervising the case. The impact of the investigation on the six election challenges filed by unsuccessful primary candidates could be null. Some of the election contestants filed motions to have their trials delayed pending the grand jury-ordered analysis. But five cases have already been denied, and the sixth — that of Paul Vazaldua in the justice of the peace Precinct 2 Place 2 race — is set for trial Wednesday. “Basically, this is for the grand jury investigation only,” Moore said. The grand jury will hire Data Defenders, a Chicago-based election auditing firm, to conduct the analysis, Moore said. A man who answered the phone at the number listed on Data Defenders’ website declined comment Tuesday, saying he was too busy.
If the analysis turns up any wrongdoing, the grand jury could forward the case to trial. At that point, the results of the analysis could become public — or not, as the investigation could continue during the trial, Moore said. Regardless, Vazaldua applauded the Commissioners Court action. “Anything that’s moving forward with the election contest is a good thing for the citizens of Hidalgo County,” he said. “I think it’s a home run.”
But an ally was irate at the inclusion of the voting machine manufacturer in the audit process, after Precinct 4 Commissioner Joseph Palacios raised concerns the analysis would void the county’s contract with Elections Systems & Software if a representative from that firm wasn’t part of the investigation. “I think that was a deliberate move to bring ES&S in the investigation, and they’re going to make it a lot more complicated,” said Nathan Gower Schwarz, a political consultant who’s been advising the six election contestants. “This commissioner’s concerned about a maintenance contract with ES&S? First of all, the audit logs that are on these machines have nothing to do with these machines, they’re on a CD.”