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‘Are you kidding me’: Gillespie County Republican hand count stretched into early morning hours

Election officials, Republican party workers pull all-nighter to report results in Texas county’s hand-counted primary.

A group of people are seen sitting at tables inside a large room.
Election workers hand-count early voting ballots inside of The Edge tasting room in Fredericksburg on Tuesday after the primary. (Maria Crane / The Texas Tribune)

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FREDERICKSBURG, Texas — Bruce Campbell, chairman of the Gillespie County Republican Party, predicted that results from the 13 GOP precincts would start trickling into the county elections office by 8:30 p.m.

By 9:30 p.m., he expressed surprise that none had returned.

Shortly after, he informed county Elections Director Jim Riley it might be hours before workers finished hand counting the thousands of early and mailed ballots — a task they’d begun at 7:30 that morning in a glass-walled tasting room at a winery called The Resort at Fredericksburg.

“Are you kidding me?” Riley said.

Campbell wasn’t kidding, or even hedging. In the end, the counting took all night long.

At 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, Gillespie County Republicans completed hand counting more than 8,000 ballots, following through on a decision the county party made months ago amid a statewide push led by individuals who have promoted some of the wildest election conspiracy theories since the 2020 election.

Gillespie County Republicans decided to hand-count primary ballots even though experts agree, and studies show the method is time-consuming, costly, less accurate, and less secure than using machines.

A man wearing a blue shirt and glasses is seen in a hallway with two brown doors in the background.
Gillespie County Elections Administrator Jim Riley listens to someone speaking in the hallway of the Elections Office in Fredericksburg early Wednesday morning. (Maria Crane / The Texas Tribune)

In each precinct and at one winery selected as the counting site for ballots cast during early voting, workers paid $12 an hour were hand-counting nearly 8,000 primary ballots, around half of which had been cast that day.

The workers couldn’t stop until they finished: Texas law requires the count be continuous. While the Gillespie County Republican Party has so far paid for the hand count, the state, which allocates money to reimburse political parties and counties for their primary and runoff election expenses, will ultimately reimburse most of its costs. The total has yet to be tallied, but that means Texas taxpayers will foot the final bill.

At the tasting room, called The Edge, ballots had been neatly stacked on tables supported by wine barrels, and estimates for when they’d complete this task fluctuated throughout the evening — from as early as 1 a.m. to as late as 5 a.m. Ultimately, party workers loaded the final set of counted ballots into a constable’s vehicle in front of the winery at 2:30 a.m. The final precinct would not report its results until just before 4 a.m.

It was not the efficient process Republicans envisioned, though one carried out with no visible calamity. From start to finish, the process took almost 24 consecutive hours and involved around 200 people counting ballots. It remains to be seen if any of the candidates on the ballot will challenge the results, or whether this count will withstand next week’s official canvass. Texas law only requires that elections conducted on electronic tabulation equipment undergo a partial recount, so there is no such requirement here.

“You saw how this went,” Riley told Votebeat at 5 a.m., when all party members had departed the office. “This was a circus.” He said he’d withhold judgment on whether the count was accurate because he didn’t have eyes and ears in the rooms where it happened.

A person wearing a grey sweater and glasses holds two giant boxes with a door way in the background.
An election worker from Precinct 3 brings materials into the Elections Office on Tuesday. (Maria Crane / The Texas Tribune)

For their part, the Democrats conducted their primary with the help of the county using the same machines they’ve used for a few years. Even with paperwork delays and a minor glitch at one polling location, the party was finished counting all of its ballots — around 700 of them — by 10 p.m. It was a light year, as many reliable Democratic voters in the bright red county chose to vote in the Republican primary in order to participate in a contested sheriff’s race.

Campbell said the party’s “original goal” was to have “enough volunteers that we finished counting before the Democrats did.”

“Clearly, that didn’t happen,” he said.

Republican Party official David Treibs had been the chief advocate for hand counting, and told Votebeat in December after the plans were finalized that the process was “not anything that’s really complicated. If you go ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5′ then you can do it.” Party officials expressed confidence results would be known shortly after the polls closed.

Treibs, a precinct judge and local tea party member, turned in his precinct’s election results — Precinct 13, held at an auction house — at about 2 a.m. The counting of 450 ballots wasn’t hard at all, he said. Figuring out the paperwork and reconciliation forms was more of a challenge. “It’s not like we do this every day,” he said, though he added that he’s looking forward to doing it again.

“Oh my God. It was so exciting,” he said shortly after turning in the results — visibly energized, despite the hour. “I was so happy with it.”

A man wearing glasses and a red, white and blue striped shirt looks at a computer screen.
Bruce Campbell, chairman of the Gillespie County Republican Party, in the Elections Office in Fredericksburg early Wednesday morning. (Maria Crane / The Texas Tribune)

Campbell, speaking to Votebeat at 4 a.m. at the county’s election office, was more reserved — he said he couldn’t say whether the hand count went well. “You’d have to ask those 300 people who worked and counted,” he said, including in his count poll workers who operated the polls but didn’t count ballots. “You’d have to ask the voters.”

He’s also not sure the party could recruit enough people for a high-turnout general election in November. “We’d need double the workers,” he said. “It’ll be double the number of hours.”

In 2020, Gillespie County Republicans carried out their primary with only 45 workers, and the results were reported in a few hours. None of the candidates challenged the results. This year, more than six times as many poll workers and counters turned up for shifts throughout the day — and some worked the entire time. Still, that fell short of the recruitment goal that party leaders told Votebeat in December they expected to clear without issue.

Treibs has recently begun publishing his own right-wing newsletter, the Fredericksburg Liberty Bell. In its very first edition, published Feb. 19, Treibs wrote the party still needed “100 more volunteers to help with the hand count.”

Republican turnout also ultimately exceeded expectations in the county, giving Republican workers a larger task than originally envisioned and pushing counting into the wee hours of Wednesday morning.

A worker from the 9th precinct — a volunteer fire station where only 77 votes were cast all day — was the first to return with results just before 10:30 p.m, after it took four people more than three hours to count those ballots. Precinct 4, where 439 voters cast their ballots on Tuesday at a local Girl Scout cabin, was the last to report. The precinct captain left the elections office at around 4:30 a.m.

Jerry Vaclav served as a Democratic election judge on Tuesday, and said the Republicans’ elongated counting process and frustration over the slow trickle of results “serves them right.”

“The sad part is this makes us look stupid to the rest of the state,” he said. Of Texas’s 254 counties, Gillespie was second to last to report its results. Harris County — the state’s most populous and home to Houston — still had precincts outstanding as of Wednesday morning. The county, which has become well-known for its recent spate of election problems, had nearly 1,200 precincts.

Tables and chairs fill the inside of a restaurant.
Tables and chairs fill the inside of The Edge, a winery tasting room workers used to count ballots. (Maria Crane / The Texas Tribune)

The tasting room at the winery, where about 4,200 early and mailed ballots were counted from 7 a.m. on Tuesday to 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, is a picturesque space. Counters worked beneath vaulted ceilings and in front of large windows overlooking a winding section of the Pedernales River. The Resort features a collection of tiny homes for rent, and is a popular destination for weddings. Its logo — a take on the popular “Come and Take It” flag — is a sideways corkscrew labeled “Come and Taste it.”

It was not the Republican Party’s original choice for this process, which had been slated to occur at a local church. Practice sessions, however, revealed the acoustics of the church were not conducive to several groups working separately at the same time. By contrast, the winery provided significant space with plenty of tables, designed purposefully for separate groups to gather at once. The party made the change early last week, surprising winery staff who were told the winery would be closed all day on Tuesday to accommodate the hand count. The winery reopened as scheduled at 11 a.m. Wednesday.

One of the owners of the space, Mickey Poole, is a former Republican candidate for city council. In 2020, a Gillespie County grand jury charged him with illegal voting and tampering with a government document, though the charges were dropped in 2023. Poole called the charges politically motivated. They stemmed from a ballot he cast in a 2019 referendum on fluoride in the county water system, despite having a homestead exemption in a different county and being registered to vote at his business address — a local Comfort Inn & Suites.

Poole had not responded to a request for comment submitted to the winery.

Republicans in Gillespie County began advocating for hand counting last summer, when the local party’s executive committee — mostly members of the Fredericksburg Tea Party — voted to ditch all electronic voting equipment used to tabulate votes.

That vote had been sparked by out-of-state election conspiracy theorists, who’d made rounds across the state attempting to persuade local leaders to hand count ballots based on unsubstantiated claims of broad election malfeasance. Among them: tabulation equipment was being manipulated by local election officials to change results.

Most Texas county leaders dismissed the claims. But many Republican party chairs in counties across the state — from large ones such as Dallas and Bexar to rural counties such as Uvalde in South Texas — considered hand counting before determining it would be more costly, logistically chaotic, and require around double the number of election workers or more.

A row of ballot boxes is seen through a window with two people in the background.
Ballot boxes sit on a table inside of a winery in Fredericksburg on Tuesday. (Maria Crane / The Texas Tribune)

Gillespie was the only sizable county in the state whose Republicans attempted a full hand count of their results, though Travis County’s party leadership opted to hand count mailed ballots — a fraction of total votes cast. With just under 2,000 such ballots to count, the party — which is significantly larger than Gillespie’s — finished counting around midnight, with quality checks continuing throughout Wednesday.

Travis Party officials worked with the secretary of state’s office and the Travis County Elections department to quality-check its count. Campbell did not immediately respond to a question about whether Gillespie Republicans took similar steps to quality-check their count. Travis County also video recorded its hand count process, a step that the Gillespie County GOP did not take.

A small number of counties with populations of only a few hundred also always count by hand, but rarely have large numbers of ballots or candidate choices, as Gillespie did.

Some of the Gillespie Republican Party’s candidates and emissaries were enthusiastic about the change.

“We love hand counting,” said Barbi Biedermann, whose husband, Kyle, was running to unseat Republican state Rep. Ellen Troxclair.

“I believe it’s a foolproof system,” she said on Tuesday “I think we are going back to how it was. If it’s not broken, why fix it?”

Her husband, with whom she owns two hardware stores in the county, stood campaigning in front of a precinct near downtown. He had been endorsed by those party members who’d advocated for hand counting. “I agree with everything my wife said,” he told Votebeat, declining to comment further.

When unofficial results were released on the Texas Secretary of State’s website, Kyle Biedermann was shown losing to Troxclair by 9 points. Of the five counties in the state House district, results show Biedermann won only Gillespie County.

Gillespie County voters had more of a mixed reception.

Dudley Kiefer, a longtime resident of Fredericksburg, cast his ballot at Precinct 7, housed at the county’s Farm Bureau. Keifer, who has been voting in the Republican primary for 19 years, said he preferred casting his ballot on a machine, citing ease and reliability. “With the population we have, we have to take advantage of our technology.”

Susan Boone — who also cast her ballot at Precinct 7 on Tuesday — said she didn’t oppose it, but called hand counting “unnecessary.” So did Tim Bowyer, who voted at Precinct 4, without any issues and not much of a wait. “I didn’t distrust the machines,” he said.

Natalia Contreras is a reporter for Votebeat in partnership with the Texas Tribune. Contact Natalia at ncontreras@votebeat.org. Jessica Huseman is Votebeat’s editorial director and is based in Dallas. Contact Jessica at jhuseman@votebeat.org.

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