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November 5th, 2012:

On voter confidence

There was one more interesting aspect to that poll of Harris County from last week, and it had to do with how confident voters were that the vote they cast would be counted. This KUHF story goes into that result.

A new KUHF/KHOU poll shows that black voters aren’t as confident as other voters that their vote will be counted accurately.

[…]

Rice University Political Science Professor Bob Stein, who conducted the poll, says confusion and possible anger over voter ID could be fueling the lower level of assurance.

“African-Americans here are actually considerably less confident that their vote will be counted accurately than other African-Americans throughout the country, with the exception of states who’ve had this controversy over photo IDs.”

Stein says the difference between the KUHF/KHOU poll and national polls is the level of confidence African-American voters expressed. While nationally 40-45 percent of black voters are very confident that their vote will be counted accurately. Stein says the numbers are different for those voters polled in Harris County.

“Among African-Americans only about 36% are very confident, compared to 50% white and 44% Hispanic.”

Here are the relevant tables from the topline data:

Dr. Stein asked me for my feedback on this, and I replied as follows:

Interesting stuff. From a Dem perspective, I would add two things that likely add to the perception of one’s vote not being counted:

1. In my experience, Dems have a much higher level of distrust of electronic voting machines. Some of that is lingering paranoia and conspiracy-mongering from Ohio 2004, and some of it is the very legitimate concern that these machines aren’t terribly secure and could well be compromised without anyone knowing it. The fact that every cycle there seems to be a story about some well-connected Republican having an ownership stake in a company that produces these machines, as is the case this year with Tagg Romney, adds to this level of distrust.

2. Every time something happens that causes a problem with voting, or that results in misinformation about voting, it seems to affect people of color in a vastly disproportionate amount. See the recent debacle with the “dead voter” purge here, and the recent story in Arizona about the wrong date for Election Day being provided in Spanish-language materials. Add in the various official and unofficial efforts to suppress minority voting – voter ID, the King Street Patriots’ “poll watchers”, efforts to curb early voting in Ohio, etc etc etc – and it’s easy to see why some folks feel like their vote is discounted.

Almost as if on cue, we had this story in Friday’s Chron:

State election officials repeatedly and mistakenly matched active longtime Texas voters to deceased strangers across the country – some of whom perished more than a decade ago – in an error-ridden effort to purge dead voters just weeks before the presidential election, according to a Houston Chronicle review of records.

Voters in legislative districts across Texas with heavy concentrations of Hispanics or African-Americans were more often targeted in that flawed purge effort, according the Chronicle’s analysis of more than 68,000 voters identified as possibly dead.

It’s unclear why so many more matches were generated in some minority legislative districts. One factor may be the popularity of certain surnames in Hispanic and historically black neighborhoods.

That’s as may be, and as noted before there were Anglo voters and known Republicans affected by this as well. But still, there are only so many times that this sort of thing can happen before people stop believing it to be a coincidence or an innocent mistake. Texans for Public Justice argued last week that this was anything but an innocent mistake, as they accused Andrade of deliberately trying to suppress the vote. You can read the report and come to your own conclusions, but again I’m not surprised by the poll numbers. I’m sure there are other reasons I didn’t come up with. Maybe this is an anomaly, maybe it’s a small sample size problem, but it’s worth keeping an eye on, because people who don’t think their vote counts are less likely to vote. What do you think about this?

Patrick wants AG opinion domestic partner benefits

Gotta keep an eye on those tricky gays and the people who want to treat them as equals.

On the right side of history

State Sen. Dan Patrick on Friday asked the Texas Attorney General’s Office to issue an opinion on whether government entities that provide domestic partner insurance benefits are violating the state constitution.

Patrick, R-Houston, said his request was prompted by recent decisions of the Pflugerville Independent School District and Dallas County, to offer domestic partner benefits to their employees. He cited the 2005 state constitutional amendment approved by voters that defines marriage as between one man and one woman and prohibits government entities from creating or recognizing anything identical or similar to marriage.

“The question is, are they pushing the envelope to the edge or are they violating the law?” Patrick said. “I would like the Texas Attorney General to opine on that question.”

[…]

El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar said the county currently is enrolling employees under its domestic partnership benefits policy, passed in August. She said she believes the policy is not only fair, but offers a competitive benefits package that helps to recruit new employees and retain existing ones.

“We believe in offering benefits to everyone who works for the county,” she said. “Dedicated public servants deserve these benefits.”

Escobar called it disconcerting to see Patrick question the legality of offering domestic partnership benefits at a time when local governments have taken hard hits because of state budget cuts.

“We’ve had to balance our budgets on the backs of our employees,” she said. “Is he (Patrick) now trying to tie our hands and limit our ability to adequately compensate our public servants?”

I always find it funny how when the federal government does something that affects states it’s an unconscionable attack on freedom, but when the state does something that affects cities, it’s wholly unremarkable. Maybe it’s just that whatever level of government you’re in, that’s the most important one.

I will not be surprised if Abbott’s opinion goes against the cities and school districts that have taken this step in favor of equality. Those of us who opposed the 2005 Double Secret Illegal Anti-Gay Marriage constitutional amendment warned that it was very broadly worded, in addition to being, you know, wrong. It is of course possible that all of this is an academic exercise, that the future ruling that DOMA is unconstitutional will negate these restrictions and clear the way for true equality. At least, I sure hope that’s what will happen, but who knows when that will be if it does. In the meantime, this is just another opportunity for Patrick and Abbott and their fellow travelers to do real harm to real families. I hope they’re proud of themselves.

Harris County and court costs

Grits has some interesting local news.

An appellate court has ruled that all court fees in Harris County criminal cases, going back for some indeterminate amount of time, are invalid if the county did not produce a written “bill of cost” documenting their source, as the county apparently, routinely failed to do. Moreover, the issue need not have been preserved at trial for court costs to be appealed. The implications are potentially profound.

Former Office of Court Administration chief Carl Reynolds, who retired earlier this year and is one of the few Texas criminal justice experts who’s willing and able to enthusiastically discuss court costs with you, emailed to notify Grits of an opinion last week out of Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals (uploaded here; see all the filings in the case), which ruled, as Carl put it, that “Harris County does not comply with [Texas Code of Criminal Procedure] 103.001 by failing to create a bill of costs in each case. If a judgment lists the court costs, but there is no evidence in the record to support those costs, then no costs are owed. Often these costs total many hundreds of dollars and are garnished by TDCJ from commissary funds, or they become owed as conditions of probation. The issue is therefore very important. It need not even be raised in the trial court to preserve it for appeal.” (emphasis added)

What does it mean? Translated from court-speak, if the government can’t justify the court costs it assigns in writing in a formal bill of costs – as apparently Harris County is not set up to do and has not historically done – then the defendant does not owe any court costs! That’s really pretty huge.

There’s an update here, and you should read both posts. This sounds like there could be a significant financial impact on counties all over Texas, not just Harris. It’s their own fault for playing so loose with the law, of course, it’s just that they never got called on it before now. It’ll be interesting to see how this mess gets resolved.

Endorsement watch: Various miscellaneous

Just a brief roundup of various endorsements that have come to my attention lately. No particular theme to them, just what I’ve seen in the past few days.

– The Environmental Defense Fund has endorsed the HISD bond referendum.

The $1.89 billion proposition will be use to build, replace and renovate schools in adherence to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards, created by the USGBC (U.S. Green Building Council) to establish a common standard of measurement for green buildings. These facilities will be energy efficient and environmentally responsible, resulting in lower operating costs for the district. The bond proposition has also been endorsed by the USGBC Texas Chapter.

“EDF applauds the Houston Independent School District’s proposal to build all new schools under the HISD Bond Proposal 2012 according to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED standards for schools,” said Kate Zerrenner, energy efficiency specialist at the EDF Austin office. “In addition to creating a healthier environment for children, LEED-certified buildings increase overall energy efficiency and cut electricity bills for school districts. We hope other school districts in the Greater Houston region will follow HISD’s leadership.”

I don’t recall the EDF getting involved in an election like this before. I don’t think this is the sort of endorsement that’s likely to change anyone’s mind, but it ought to serve as a reminder to people who would probably be inclined to support this but may not have been paying attention to it.

– Two Democratic candidates announced Republican endorsements: State Sen. Wendy Davis touted the support of former State Sen. and Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff.

“In my fifteen years in the Texas Senate and two years as Lieutenant Governor, I have witnessed many political candidates talk about their support for public education,” Governor Ratliff said. “ Far too many of those same people, once elected, turn out to be too timid in their advocacy for our schools and for adequate public education funding. I believe all partisanship should be left at the schoolhouse door.”

“Although we belong to different political parties, I support Senator Wendy Davis because she has been unwavering in her advocacy for our public schools,” Ratliff said in endorsing Davis for re-election.

Ratliff was a moderate and remains a strong advocate for public education. Given the differences between Sen. Davis and her opponent, this had to be a pretty easy call for Ratliff.

– Along similar lines, Mary Ann Perez received the support of Gilbert Pena, who lost to her opponent David Pineda in the GOP primary for HD144:

“I am a Republican who will not vote for David Pineda. I have spoken to David and asked him about his views on protecting our borders and runaway testing in our schools. David doesn’t have an answer, he has special interests handlers calling the shots from some fancy office in Austin.

Our representative shouldn’t be the lap dog of lobbyists whether they’re a Democrat or Republican!

Mary Ann is a small business owner we can be proud of. She has a track record of bringing local industry and educators together to create jobs right here in Southeast Harris County.”

That’s from a campaign email Perez sent. Unlike Davis, she can win on Democratic votes alone, assuming sufficient turnout of course, but a little crossover support never hurt.

– Finally, some endorsements are exactly what you’d expect them to be:

Seriously, what else did you expect?