It’s the election that just won’t end. Laredo congressman Henry Cuellar and challenger Jessica Cisneros first faced each other in the Democratic primary one hundred days ago, and yet South Texas voters in the Twenty-eighth district still don’t know officially which one of them will serve as the party’s nominee in November. The March 1 primary ended with neither candidate clearing the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. Then, after voters waited two and half months to cast ballots again on May 24, it took another thirteen days for the count to trickle in. Once it was finalized, Cuellar clung to a razor-thin margin of about 281 votes—about as many people as can comfortably fit in the average movie theater. Cisneros refused to concede defeat.
Cuellar, though, had seen enough on election night. On Twitter, he declared victory, asserting that his margin would hold. When a reporter asked him later that night how he could be so confident, given that Cisneros was within the 1 percent margin needed to demand a recount, Cuellar had a cheeky response: “I know what it is to do a recount in an election contest,” he said. “We have very good attorneys and if we need to, we will defend our election victory.”
Indeed, recounts rarely change Texas election results. While data on congressional recounts are hard to come by, those requested in state-level races almost never succeed. According to FairVote, an election reform organization, only three recounts have flipped the winner of a statewide election in the U.S. since 2000, none of them in Texas.
Nonetheless, on Monday Cisneros officially called for a recount. The 281-vote deficit she faces would be the largest overcome in recent Texas history, should she be found to be the winner. Cisneros is not challenging any specific aspects of the original vote count, but she says that with such a slim margin, she has a duty to her voters to ensure the tally is double-checked. “Our community isn’t done fighting, we are filing for a recount. With just under 0.6 percent of the vote symbolizing such stark differences for the future in South Texas, I owe it to our community to see this through to the end,” she said in a statement.
Cuellar has acknowledged Cisneros’s right to a recount, while saying it has no chance of succeeding. “She has previously stated that she ‘won’t stop fighting until every vote has been counted.’ Well every vote has been counted,” he said in a statement.
But Cuellar, more than anyone else, knows there has been at least one successful recount in recent Texas history: the one in 2004 that carried him into the U.S. House. Cuellar lost the initial count in a primary by 145 votes and demanded a recount. Back then, he expressed far less confidence in the original count. “Until every eligible vote is accurately counted, the voters cannot be certain of the outcome of this election,” Cuellar said in 2004.
That year, Cuellar was challenging Democratic incumbent Ciro Rodriguez. Cuellar and Rodriguez had once been friends, as part of a tight-knit group of Hispanic representatives in the Texas Legislature. When Cuellar first ran unsuccessfully for Congress in the neighboring Twenty-third district in 2002, Rodriguez had enthusiastically campaigned for him. Those warm feelings disintegrated when Cuellar’s hometown, Laredo, was redistricted into Rodriguez’s turf in 2003 and Cuellar came gunning for his onetime friend: “Ciro has done zero” became a campaign slogan. Rodriguez was shocked but soon fired back, calling Cuellar a political opportunist. This cycle, he endorsed Cisneros.
Even though Cuellar was not the incumbent in the race, in many ways he already represented the South Texas establishment: After serving fourteen years in the Legislature, and after serving as Texas Secretary of State under Governor Rick Perry, Cuellar had firmly entrenched himself with the state’s political and business elite. Especially in Laredo, his home base and the seat of Webb County, Cuellar had aligned an army of wealthy businesspeople, local officials, and important local families behind him. Hundreds of thousands of dollars flowed into his campaign.
When the vote came in and Cuellar demanded a recount, his main argument was that a vote-counting machine in Zapata County had broken down. He also said there were “irregularities” in Bexar County, home of San Antonio.
As tallying began, about 500 new ballots appeared. First, in Zapata, a small rural county to the south of Laredo, election officials discovered a box of 304 early-voting ballots at the International Bank of Commerce, which had served as a polling center. About 80 percent of them were for Cuellar. While the local Democratic chair proclaimed that those ballots had been sealed in between the end of the election and the start of the recount, suspicions abounded: Cuellar had multiple personal friends employed at the bank, and IBC was then (and continues to be) a contributor to Cuellar’s campaigns.
Then, in Laredo—the seat of Cuellar’s power—177 ballots also surfaced. Every one of them was in Cuellar’s name. He now had a 203-vote lead—an enormous swing of 348 votes from the initial count. There was an uproar, with many political observers skeptical about the discovery of a pile of Cuellar ballots in his own turf.
“In some thirty years that I have been an administrator, supervisor or involved in elections, I have never seen this large a change in any county in any election,” Buck Wood, an Austin elections lawyer, said at the time. He would represent Rodriguez in a lawsuit challenging the recount results. A federal judge denied Rodriguez in his attempt to bring a case alleging fraudulent votes in Webb County but did order a recount there, which reaffirmed Cuellar’s victory.
Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, was even more blunt in his assessment of the recount: “There is no way on God’s green earth that 177 ballots showed up for Cuellar [in Webb County] and zero for Rodriguez,” he told reporters. “You have to look at this as one that will go down in Texas lore as a stolen election.”
Almost two decades later, as Cuellar is again locked in a bitter recount, Jillson says he’s now less confident that the 2004 race was stolen. “I stand by about forty percent of what I’ve said over the years,” he jokes. But he says that as a student of the history of Texas—where elections have frequently been “managed” in favor of establishment candidates—it’s still hard not to see something fishy about the result.
“My immediate thought was LBJ and Box 13,” Jillson says. In 1948, after Lyndon B. Johnson appeared to have lost a race for U.S. Senate by little more than 100 votes, a ballot box—number 13—was “discovered” in Alice, a small town in Johnson’s home county of Jim Wells. The 202 votes in the box were in alphabetical order and every single one was for LBJ, who went on to the Senate and eventually the presidency. “There’s just deep lore in Texas history about stolen elections, and late ballots, and finding the number of votes that you need,” Jillson says.
South Texas contended with multiple corrupt political machines in the twentieth century, including Webb County’s Partido Viejo, one of the most powerful political machines in Texas history, which eventually collapsed under a fraud scandal in Laredo in the seventies. While most of the old political bosses and the patrón system are gone, Jillson says election chicanery can still happen today.
“The dominant faction always has a full slate of poll watchers, of election judges, of county registrars, all the way up,” Jillson says, noting that even if there’s no explicit foul play, rules can still get interpreted in favor of an incumbent. For instance, officials in charge of searching for ballots during a recount might stop once they find votes for the establishment candidate.
Because there’s no reason to believe there was a major miscount initially, Jillson is reasonably confident Cuellar will be able to defend his lead during the runoff. He says Cisneros was wise to request a recount, however: even though it’s 2022, not 1948, “unusual things still happen.” He says her campaign should watch the recount closely, but, as a student of history, he doesn’t expect the result to change.