Every election cycle there are fights over who really did or didn’t qualify for the ballot. This one is shaping up to be a doozy.
Three lawsuits over alleged ballot irregularities involving Harris County judicial candidates will be heard by a Beaumont judge, officials said Thursday.
State District Judge Bob Wortham was appointed to preside over the cases a day after the Harris County Attorney’s Office said it is reviewing documents filed by all local judicial candidates.
“We have a reasonable suspicion there are several instances that we need to look into,” said Terry O’Rourke, special assistant to County Attorney Vince Ryan.
O’Rourke and other officials appeared in a Harris County court Thursday for a hearing on a temporary restraining order request by longtime Precinct 2 Place 2 Justice of the Peace George Risner.
Harris County GOP chair Jared Woodfill said the party was not made aware of the allegations until after the five-day window to investigate inaccuracies that followed the Dec. 9 filing deadline.
Instead of ruling on Risner’s request for a restraining order to stop the county from printing or mailing any more ballots, including absentee ballots, for the March 4 primary, state District Judge Randy Wilson said it would be more appropriate for a judge from outside Harris County.
“This could affect a lot of judges here,” Wilson said. “I’m a candidate on that ballot.”
He noted that Risner’s case is similar to two other recently filed cases involving Republicans and Democrats in judicial races and said administrative Judge Olen Underwood would assign the cases, including the hearing that had been scheduled for Thursday, to Wortham.
Wortham is expected to have a hearing on Risner’s request for a temporary restraining order on Tuesday.
Moving the case to another jurisdiction makes a lot of sense, for the reason noted by Judge Wilson. The Thursday Chron had a preview of what was to come, with some more detail about the instigating case.
The allegation first was raised by longtime Precinct 2 Place 2 Justice of the Peace George Risner, who is suing the Harris County Republican Party, claiming it violated state election law by placing candidate Leonila Olivares-Salazar on its party ballot even after being told her application included hundreds of falsified petition signatures.
Olivares-Salazar “has publicly admitted to hiring a company to collect the required number of valid signatures (250) to qualify her for the ballot,” the petition states. “There were at least four circulators that gathered signatures for Olivares-Salazar who were employed by the company Olivares-Salazar hired, who falsified signatures on Olivares-Salazar’s petitions.”
Risner, a Democrat first elected to his post in 1987, and Olivares-Salazar are running unopposed in their parties’ respective primaries, meaning they would face each other in the November general election.
Risner said he was suspicious about the validity of the 456 signatures his opponent submitted after some of his “friends and campaign workers looked them over,” and decided to go door-to-door to see whether people whose names appeared on the petitions actually had signed them.
“Ninety-nine point nine percent of them told me no,” he said. The petition claims 380 signatures were falsified.
Anyone who is active in politics has signed judicial petitions. The parties hold events designed to help judicial candidates get the petition signatures they need, and anyplace where candidates and voters gather there will be clipboard-toters seeking signatures. One of the things about signing such a petition is that you promise not to sign any petitions for a candidate from another party, and you promise not to vote in another party’s primary or participate in another party’s candidate selection convention. I suspect that is what may have tipped off Risner – if his Republican opponent’s petition had a bunch of signatures from known Democrats on it, that would be odd. If Risner then got some sworn statements from these folks attesting that they never signed Olivares-Salazar’s petition, that’s pretty strong evidence. Plus, the universe of people who sign these petitions for either party is pretty small, and heavily partisan. Most names are likely to appear many times, for the reasons cited above. Seeing mostly unrecognizable names on the petition, and following up to determine that they mostly have no primary voting history, would also be a clue that something unusual was happening.
Anyway. I can’t wait to see what the Beaumont judge makes of all this. There are also rumors that the County Attorney’s investigation may turn up other instances of invalid signatures. That’ss the party’s job to check, and HCDP Chair Lane Lewis is quoted saying his team did do a thorough review of all their petitions. We’ll see how that goes. The other two lawsuits involved a Republican challenger to a Republican incumbent judge who was denied a spot on the primary ballot, and an allegation by Democrat Julia Maldonado that her opponent, Sandra Peake, did not turn in enough signatures. Campos (twice) and Lisa Falkenberg have more.