This is just freakin’ great.
Because of a mix-up with the new district boundaries, not everyone who was qualified to vote in a school trustee race was able to and some voters who weren’t supposed to, were allowed to cast a ballot. And the implications of all this may be far reaching.
There are a lot of lawyers looking at this problem and a lot of concerns about possible federal lawsuits by disenfranchised voters. We are just two weeks away from the runoff election between Democrats for county school trustee Position 6, and no one knows if it will count, or in fact, whether the primary counted in the first place.
When voters cast their ballots in two weeks in a number of run off races, one may still be in limbo. But while deciding the race between political newcomer Erica S. Lee and former city council member Jarvis Johnson for Harris County school trustee Position 6 is important, First Assistant County Attorney Terry O’Rourke is worried about something bigger.
“One person, one vote and it just didn’t happen,” he said.
O’Rourke and the office is now scrambling to find a solution to a big districting mistake. According to a letter by outgoing Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Don Sumners, the Harris County Department of Education trustee district lines were not updated for the May primary. In fact, each precinct was about 100,000 people off. An analysis of the Lee-Johnson race, Sumners writes, shows almost 1,400 people did not vote who should have and 872 people did who should not have.
“It’s a big mess and we’re trying to figure out a way to solve it in the most simple, elegant way possible,” O’Rourke said.
Johnson missed winning outright by less than 200 votes (see page 21 here), so this absolutely could be a difference maker. Also affected was the Republican primary for Precinct 4, Position 3, but as that race wasn’t close (page 23 here) its outcome is not in question. I wondered if there might be other races that could have been affected but weren’t mentioned in this story, such as the Dem primaries for County Commissioner in Precinct 4 (Sean Hammerle won by 328 votes) and Constable in Precinct 1, where 1214 votes separated fourth place and first place. I asked Terry O’Rourke the question, and he said that both the Tax Assessor and the County Clerk assured the County Attorney’s office that only the HCDE races were affected. Good to know, but this is still a big honking problem. The HCDE itself is not happy about this.
John Sawyer, the appointed superintendent of the department, said he expects that a judge ultimately will void the elections. He said his agency, which provides educational services to local school districts, would contest the election if no one else does.
“I will tell you that ultimately we would contest them because I don’t think they (the boundaries) were legally drawn, and I’m not going to be responsible for swearing in candidates that may not be elected legally,” Sawyer said. “I just can’t do that.”
In response, the Harris County Attorney’s Office likely would file court papers asking a judge to provide guidance on how to fix the problem, said [Assistant County Attorney Doug] Ray.
The judge could toss out the results of the May primary and order that a new election for the two affected school trustee seats be held in November, with candidates from all parties participating, Ray speculated. A judge may also decide that the May election can stand and that the situation would be resolved simply by applying the correct boundaries for the one seat for which the election resulted in a runoff.
“It’s speculative at this point to determine whether the outcome would have been the same or not” if correct boundaries had been used, Ray said. “There are so many affected parties. The court’s going to have to be the one to decide it, I think.”
I agree it’s speculative, but if I’m Jarvis Johnson, I’m pretty pissed off about it. Erica Lee has every right to be unhappy, too. The board voted to authorize the superintendent and board president to initiate or participate in legal proceedings about the election error. We’ll see where it goes from here.
The best part about this is in the letter Sumners sent to the HCDE explaining the screwup, which you can see in that K12Zone link. He says that the HCDE “failed to advise the Tax Office” of the changes to their boundaries. Of course, since the HCDE precincts are identical to the County Commissioner precincts, which Sumners sheepishly admits in the next sentence, this should not have been an issue. Frankly, if no one noticed that unchanged districts were being used it says a lot about the lack of oversight under Sumners, which shouldn’t come as a surprise at this point. Roy Morales, the outgoing trustee in Precinct 1, Position 6, called for Sumners to resign over this. I don’t think he’s sufficiently capable of embarrassment, but I agree in principle. Campos has more, and a statement from Ann Harris Bennett, the Democratic candidate for Tax Assessor, is beneath the fold.
Don Sumners, Harris County Tax Assessor Collector & Voter Registrar reported in a letter to county officials dated July 13, 2012 that trustee district lines for the Harris County Department of Education (HDEC) were not updated for the May 29, 2012 Primary Election. The two races impacted by this oversight will be Harris County School Board Trustee Positions 4 and 6.
Ann Harris Bennett, Candidate for Harris County Tax Assessor Collector & Voter Registrar stated “Unfortunately, in recent years, the only times we have heard anything at all about the tax office is in cases like this when something goes terribly wrong. This is a serious issue that will undoubtedly take some time to resolve. I will monitor the situation closely and while the resolution process runs its course, and I will continue talking to Harris County residents about changes I would make in the tax office to avoid continued situations like this.”