YAKIMA, Wash. -- Four weeks after the polls closed, Wapato finally has a mayor-elect.
After Yakima County election officials verified signatures on six contested ballots Tuesday, semi-retired union organizer Juan “Eddy” Orozco leapt four votes ahead of Wapato High School teacher Hector Garza. Orozco won in official results, 277-273.
“I’m happy for my community,” Orozco said Tuesday after election officials certified the final results. “We always thought we won the election, and today proved it.”
Garza declined to comment, except to say that he was grateful for the people who voted for him and humbled by their support.
“To God be the glory,” Garza said.
Yakima County Auditor Charles Ross, who chaired the three-member committee that reviewed ballots Tuesday, said he would push to get better clarification in state law on how to deal with irregular signatures, as well as better education for voters on how to fill out ballots.
Initial election results the night of Nov. 7 showed Orozco ahead by 31 votes, but as last-minute and absentee ballots came in and ballots with mismatched signatures were eliminated, Garza gained a two-vote lead.
At issue was more than 30 ballots that had signatures that did not match ones on record for the voters. Ross said that in some cases it appeared the same person signed multiple ballots, based on handwriting.
Election officials disqualifed most of the ballots, but Ross said there were questions about people who submitted multiple signature verification forms after the Nov. 20 canvassing board meeting where the final vote tallies were certified.
After consulting with the Washington Secretary of State’s Office, Ross said election officials would review the ballots again. The three-member board, consisting of Ross, Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic and County Commissioner Rand Elliott, rejected 21 ballots for either having no signature verification forms or signatures that did not match verification forms.
There were six ballots that the board approved, finding that there was at least one signature verification card that matched the handwriting on the ballots.
As the third ballot was accepted, Orozco flashed a thumbs-up sign to one of his supporters in the room.
Earlier, Orozco accused Ross of disenfranchising voters in the Latino-majority Lower Valley City by questioning signatures, which he claimed are influenced by education and culture.
Orozco and another Wapato resident contacted the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs about the matter, said commission member David Morales, a Yakima attorney.
Morales said he met with county Elections Manager Kathy Fisher and Bilingual Program and Office Coordinator Yolanda Arellano to discuss the procedures used to verify signatures and the state law governing the process.
Morales said the commission is watching the process, but would not comment on Orozco’s allegations as the matter was still unresolved.
But after the additional votes were added, Orozco said he was vindicated and thanked the state for making sure everyone’s vote counted.
Ross defended the process, noting that the ballots in question were scrutinized by five trained people, including Fisher and Arellano. He said it was also unusual in that it took multiple signature cards to verify some of the ballots, but he said state officials told him it was legal.
“I think it is always best to slow down and get outside advice,” Ross said. He said he would also push for clarification in the state law to cover similar situations in the future.
Plus, Ross said his office would work to make sure voters know to just use their regular signature on their ballots, and to come in quickly if they’re told there’s a problem. He said some people helping Wapato voters gave conflicting advice on whether to use cursive or block letters to sign ballots.