Recount switches winner of Wilmer-Hutchins rematch; Precinct reporting error may put race back in court

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 37A

Al Gore and George W. Bush aren’t the only ones whose political futures hinge on a recount.

A mistaken tally from one precinct has apparently taken a seat on the Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District board away from Brenda Duff and given it to her rival, Luther Edwards III.

The switch marks the second time in a year that controversy has marred a contest for the board seat, and it’s likely the matter will end up being decided by the courts.

“I’m not sure what in the world is going on,” said Barry Finkel, attorney for Ms. Duff. “It just seems almost unbelievable.”

“It was divine intervention,” Mr. Edwards said. “I knew the Lord would protect me.”

The ballot controversy dates to May, when Ms. Duff, a former school board member trying to regain her seat, ran for the first time against Mr. Edwards, the incumbent. Ms. Duff won by only three votes. But Mr. Edwards challenged the results in district court. On Sept. 1, a visiting judge found that six votes had been illegally cast by nonresidents and ordered a new election.

Because of the dispute over the previous balloting, Dallas County election officials decided to hand-count the ballots cast in Tuesday’s rematch. Counting was done at two area election sites, one in DeSoto and one in Lancaster, and results were phoned in to the Dallas County Elections Department on Stemmons Freeway.

Those phoned-in totals again gave Ms. Duff a victory, 1,377 to 1,297, after counting concluded early Wednesday.

But later in the day, the ballots were taken downtown and recounted. County elections administrator Bruce Sherbet said that is standard procedure for any hand-counted ballots.

Officials discovered that totals from precinct 3700 – an area southwest of the Interstate 45/Interstate 635 interchange – had been misreported by phone. The precinct had been recorded as casting only 13 votes for Mr. Edwards.

In fact, Mr. Edwards won 134 votes in the precinct, officials said. The switch moved Mr. Edwards from an 80-vote loser to a 41-vote winner, Mr. Sherbet said.

“A human being on one end of the phone conversation either wrote down the wrong information or gave the wrong information,” he said.

But even with Mr. Edwards now declared the winner, the battle for the seat is not over. Mr. Finkel said Ms. Duff will request a recount. Should it still indicate that Mr. Edwards is the winner, Mr. Finkel said that he would have “no choice” but to file a petition asking the district court to set aside the election for a second time.

“We will launch an investigation to find out whether these people really voted, because for all I know, they stuffed the ballot box,” Mr. Finkel said. “We’ll probably have to go door-to-door.”

This sort of controversy is not unusual for Wilmer-Hutchins. In 1996, the Texas Education Agency took over the district for two years to help reverse poor student performance and mismanagement by former district officials. In April, former Superintendent Stanton Lawrence was terminated by the board amid allegations of sexual harassment, which he denied.

Elections for school board posts in Wilmer-Hutchins have often been marked by legal challenges on all sides.

“I’ve never held an election in the last three, four years without being barraged by complaints of people doing improper things,” Mr. Sherbet said. “I would really not mind not holding elections for them again.”