Review vowed over glitches
Top county polls official wants full inquiry of issues in South Dallas
Staff Writer

After volunteers at one of the busiest polling places in South Dallas had to turn voters away for nearly four hours Saturday when voting machines stopped working, Dallas County’s top elections official is vowing to review what happened.

The issues occurred during municipal elections when 14 seats for the Dallas City Council were on the ballot, including a hotly contested race in District 7, which is in South Dallas.

Park South Family YMCA on Romine Avenue was one of six sites on Saturday that experienced problems, such as voter machines that did not work and volunteers being unable to get into buildings, county officials told The Dallas Morning News. Half of those sites, including the YMCA, were in District 7. The race for that council seat featured eight candidates, more than any other race.

Michael Scarpello, who was named Dallas County’s elections administrator in December, acknowledged the issues on Sunday and described the county’s current voting infrastructure and processes as “deficient.” He said he plans to oversee a full review of Saturday’s voting process.

Dallas has countywide voting centers, so voters could cast a ballot at another open center in the county if one was experiencing problems. But it’s unclear how many people were turned away from polling places because of issues Saturday, and how many of them ended up casting their ballots elsewhere.

Those questions loomed large one day after the votes were tallied in District 7. A 25-vote margin separated two candidates for the last spot in the June runoff against sitting City Council member Adam Bazaldua.

More than 3,700 votes were counted in Saturday’s race, with the incumbent receiving 1,472 of them and his runoff opponent, former City Council member Kevin Felder, gaining 576 votes. Pastor Donald Parish Jr., who was endorsed by Mayor Eric Johnson, came in third with 551 votes.

Parish didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday. In a tweet the day before, he called for affected polling sites to stay open past the anticipated 7 p.m. close and called the fact that some locations were not open by 7 a.m. “voter suppression.”

One resident told The Dallas Morning News that he gave up on trying to vote after he was turned away from the YMCA. Another resident said several voters and volunteers didn’t seem to be aware that they could travel elsewhere to vote.

“There were probably votes lost for everybody in that race,” said Eva Jones, president of the Queen City Neighborhood Association, which is in District 7. “And I don’t think that’s just, right or fair.”

The results

Fourteen of the 15 seats of the Dallas City Council were contested in the elections Saturday. Only Mayor Eric Johnson’s position was not on the ballot because he is in the middle of his first four-year term. His council member colleagues all have two-year terms.

About 10.7% of Dallas’ 636,300 registered voters cast ballots in the 14 City Council races. A little more than half of the votes came before Saturday, according to Dallas County’s tally on Sunday.

The tally doesn’t include voters in cities that are split between Dallas County and Collin or Denton counties. The city is home to more than 1.3 million people.

The preliminary voter turnout is lower than the 12.6% reported in 2019, which included a mayoral race, but higher than the last council member-only race in 2017, when 7.6% of voters cast ballots, according to Dallas County data.

Incumbents Chad West, Casey Thomas, Jaime Resendez, Omar Narvaez, Tennell Atkins, Paula Blackmon, Adam McGough and Cara Mendelsohn won reelection Saturday. Thomas and McGough were elected for the fourth time and will be ineligible to run in 2023 because of term limits. Narvaez was elected for the third time, and West, Resendez, Blackmon and Mendelsohn will start their second terms next month.

Six races ended without a single candidate securing more than 50% of the vote, leading to the top two vote-getters in each race advancing to a June 5 runoff. Half of those races feature incumbents in Districts 4, 7 and 14, and the other three are for open seats in Districts 2, 11 and 13.

District 2, which includes Deep Ellum and Oak Lawn, will see restaurant owner and former Park Board member Jesse Moreno up against real estate investment firm executive and former Dallas city spokeswoman Sana Syed.

Voters will decide between incumbent Carolyn King Arnold and Dallas ISD trustee Maxie Johnson to see who represents part of the Oak Cliff area in District 4. Attorney Barry Wernick and former City Plan Commission member Jaynie Schultz will face off again to see who claims the open seat in North Dallas’ District 11.

District 13, which includes Preston Hollow and Vickery Meadow in northwest Dallas, will see real estate developer Leland Burk and Turtle Creek Conservancy chief executive Gay Donnell Willis try to claim a seat on the council for the first time. And incumbent David Blewett faces stiff competition from former plan commission member Paul Ridley in the race to represent District 14, which includes parts of downtown and East Dallas. Blewett was the only sitting council member who trailed a challenger on Saturday. He finished second to Ridley by around 1,200 votes.

The problems

In District 7, which covers Fair Park and Buckner Terrace, problems were reported at three voting locations on Election Day. Issues started at the Park South YMCA as soon as polls opened at 7 a.m., according to Dallas County.

Volunteers did not get voting machines up and running at Owenwood Farm & Neighbor Space on John West Road until 75 minutes after polls opened. Skyline High School also reported an issue with at least one voting machine, according to the county.

County officials eventually brought new machines to the YMCA and reopened it by 10:45 a.m. The voting center at the YMCA reported 183 of the 3,735 votes cast in the District 7 race, according to Dallas County. Parish received 30% of the votes from the YMCA, more than any of the eight challengers in the race.

Jones, the neighborhood association president, said she knew of at least five people who couldn’t immediately vote, including her nephew.

She said she first discovered there were issues at voting sites after accompanying her nephew to the YMCA. They were told by a volunteer that the machines were broken and that they would have to go somewhere else. Jones, who had already voted early, said they were never told where else they could go to vote.

She said she heard similar stories from others, including from some who said they were told they couldn’t vote at other sites because they needed to vote in a specific precinct.

Dallas County modified its rules in 2019 to allow voters to cast their ballots from any voting site in the county.

John Hubbard, 73, told The Dallas Morning News on Saturday he was headed into the Park South Family YMCA around 10:45 a.m. when a site volunteer stopped him and at least two other people from going into the building.

He said the volunteer told him and the other voters about different sites in the area where they could cast their ballots. But Hubbard typically votes at the YMCA, he said, and didn’t plan to travel anywhere else to vote. He also didn’t plan to return to the YMCA to see if the machines were working again.

Scarpello said he didn’t know every issue that occurred at voting sites on Saturday but believed the six sites that county officials reported in a list provided Sunday to The News had the most severe problems.

Issues at Ronald McNair Elementary School in Far South Dallas’ District 8 led to the site not being up and running until 9:15 a.m. Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in District 14 wasn’t operational until around 9:30 a.m. because volunteers couldn’t get into the building.

It wasn’t until 10:30 a.m. that there were enough extension cords and power strips for machines at E.B. Comstock Middle School in southeast Dallas’ District 5.

Jones said she didn’t know how many people chose not to vote after being stopped, but feared the likelihood was high for many.

“It hasn’t sat right with me, and it’s hard not to feel like hurt and that something was amiss,” she said. “It reeks of voter suppression. It reeks of incompetence and it smells to the high heavens.”

Scarpello said he hopes to implement a long-term plan to revise how the county engages voters, recruits and trains poll workers, prepares voting sites, and distributes equipment and supplies to them.

“In the elections business, we train people for a couple of hours on very complex procedures, distribute millions of dollars worth of equipment, put a tremendous burden on them and expect perfection,” Scarpello said.

“That expectation is not realistic, but our job is to come as close as we can.”

Twitter: @EvertonBailey