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Beverly Kaufman

County buys more eSlates

Now that the election is over and all those borrowed voting machines need to be sent back to their owners, Harris County needs to buy replacements. Commissioners Court has approved an expenditure of $19 million to buy some 4600 eSlate machines to be ready for next year. What they got is the same thing we’ve been using all along.

The purchase also signals that the county will continue to use these machines with decade-old technology for some years to come.

“We’re going to need them until there’s a new iteration of machines,” County Clerk Beverly Kaufman said. She said, and a representative of eSlate vendor Hart Intercivic confirmed, that manufacturers will not introduce new machines until the Texas secretary of state and the federal Election Assistance Commission certifies the hardware and software for use in elections.

“Vendors are loath to develop something new because they don’t know what’s around the bend,” Kaufman said.

Well, I don’t know about the certifications issue, but there are two things I would like to see in the next generation of eSlates:

1. The ability to randomize ballot order, especially for non-partisan elections like primaries, special elections, and municipal elections. Your electoral outcome should not be affected in any way by the luck of a ballot order drawing.

2. Highlighting any races that are not included in a straight-party vote. In other words, if you cast a straight party vote on a ballot where there may also be a special election or a proposition, the eSlate should point that out to you before you hit the “cast vote” button.

I don’t know if this is a chicken and egg situation or not, and I don’t know if state law would need to be changed to allow these things, but I do know that I feel pretty strongly that they ought to be considered. I’m avoiding the question of adding a paper trail because that’s a political fight, and I see these things as merely technological; perhaps naively, I don’t think either of these suggestions should be controversial, and thus ought to be reasonably easy to build a consensus for them. Given that, is there anything you’d add to my wish list?

Electronic voting will be the norm today

From the County Clerk’s office:

ELECTRONIC VOTING TO BE THE PRINCIPAL METHOD OF VOTING ON ELECTION DAY IN HARRIS COUNTY

Houston, TX– As usual, on General Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010, the eSlate electronic voting system will be the principal method of voting in Harris County. According to the County Clerk’s office, the deployment of electronic voting equipment will be virtually the same for this election compared to the last gubernatorial election.

”There will be enough electronic voting equipment at the polls to handle the expected Election Day turnout”, said Beverly Kaufman, the chief election official of the county. “Paper ballots will be available at every poll. But I strongly urge voters to cast their ballots using the eSlate electronic voting machines as it is the system which is most familiar to them.” The eSlate has been in use in Harris County since 2002.

The Election Day infrastructure and procedures will also be the same as the previous similar election: There will be 736 polling locations, five more than four years ago; The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; And, a voter may bring someone of their choosing to the polling place to provide assistance, provided it is not their labor union representative, employer, an agent of their employer, or an officer or agent of a labor union to which the voter belongs. The person providing assistance must sign the Affidavit of Voter Assistance and print his/her name on the poll list, to attest to the fact that they will not unduly influence the voter.

However, voters and the media will notice slight differences on Tuesday: Aside from the voters and the election clerks, there may be state and federal inspectors and poll watchers at some polls. [A Poll Watchers is a person appointed to observe the conduct of an election on behalf of a candidate, a political party, or the proponents or opponents of a measure (specific-purpose political action committees). The role of a poll watcher is to ensure the conduct of fair and honest elections]; and, the election night Central Counting Station will be at Reliant Arena.

Aside from the federal, state and county races on the ballot, some voters may see other items at the end their ballot such as a proposition or non-partisan election. To vote, a person may present one of the following documents: a voter registration card, a driver’s license, a picture identification of any kind, a birth certificate, a U.S. Citizenship or Naturalization certificate, a U.S passport, a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or other government document that shows the name and address of the voter. Voters who registered by mail and did not provide their driver’s license number or identification number will also need to provide another form of identification other than the voter registration certificate.

On Election Day, Texas law requires voters to vote at the precinct where they are registered to vote. Voters may find their election day polling location by visiting www.harrisvotes.com or calling 713 755 6965.

They also inform us that the results we are all waiting for may be a bit slower than usual to arrive:

Harris County Election Night returns may be slower in coming this year due to extra administrative procedures presiding election judges have to perform related to the possible use of paper ballots and because there will be only one central drop off location.

“The pace of the election returns will be dictated by how fast election judges complete their paper work and close down their polling location, and the sites’ proximity to the central drop-off station”, said Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman, the chief elections officer of the county.

The County Clerk Office expects to release the initial election results report approximately at 7:00 p.m. on election night. The report will include the ballots cast during the early voting period and almost all mail ballots delivered to the County Clerk by the election night deadline.

As of the close of the early voting period, including absentee ballots, 444,648 persons had been processed to vote. It is estimated that almost 60 percent of all voters who will participate in this election may have voted before General Election Day.

The Harris County Election Night Central Drop-Off and Counting Station will be at Reliant Arena Hall D, Reliant Park. Media may park live trucks in the Drive Lane of Maroon Lot 15, in front of Reliant Arena Hall A. Election work areas in Hall D will be off limits to the media. There will be a designated media room and media work area.

As noted before, the prediction of 60% total early vote corresponds with a final turnout projection of about 750,000. I think that’s high, but we’re in uncharted waters, so who knows what could happen. I still expect the upper limit is more like 700,000, but we’ll know soon enough. In any event, today is the day we’ve been waiting for. Vote if you have not done so, and ensure your right to complain about the outcome afterward. I’ll be back later with updates and analysis.

Final early vote wrapup

As was the case in 2008, we saw record levels of early voting this year in Harris County.

As polls closed Friday before Tuesday’s general election, as many as 450,000 people are expected to have cast their ballots early or by mail, an amount officials say is likely to make up about 65 percent of the total, a record for Harris County in a gubernatorial contest. That would more than double the total number of early votes in 2002 and 2006.

Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman predicted that as many as 300,000 will cast their ballots Tuesday, putting overall turnout at 750,000, or about 39 percent of registered voters.

Kaufman attributed the huge early voter turnout to a “true spirit of cooperation” among voters aware of the August fire that destroyed 10,000 pieces of voting equipment. Immediately after the blaze and before she knew whether the county would be able to obtain enough electronic voting machines by Tuesday, Kaufman began imploring residents to vote early to avoid the sort of lines that could discourage turnout on Election Day.

Here’s the final daily tally for early voting. As of close of business Friday, a total of 444,648 in person and mail ballots had been cast. Mail ballots that arrive through Tuesday will still count, so that number will creep up a bit in the end.

As for turnout projections, we don’t have much history to guide us, as the County Clerk webpage only breaks out early votes for 2002 and 2006. In 2002, by my calculations 188,225 of the 652,682 votes were cast early, including mail ballots, for a total of 28.8%. In 2006, 191,533 of the 601,186 votes were cast early, for 31.9% of the total. (You can see the 2006 daily early vote tracker here.) If 65% of the votes have been cast already as the story suggests, we’ll have final turnout in the 690,000 range. For a final turnout of 750,000, that means only 60% of the votes have been cast already. My inclination is the pick the lower number, and even that may be a tad high. Let’s say the over/under is at 700,000, and as is my habit, I’ll take the under.

As for the breakdown by State Rep. districts where early votes were cast, it looks like this:

2010 last day Strong R = 41.9% Medium R = 9.1% Medium D = 16.7% Strong D = 29.4% 2010 overall Strong R = 46.0% Medium R = 9.3% Medium D = 17.4% Strong D = 25.0% Total R = 55.3% Total D = 42.4% 2006 Overall Strong R = 43.7% Medium R = 11.2% Medium D = 19.2% Strong D = 23.2% Total R = 54.9% Total D = 42.4%

In the end, it looks a lot like 2006 after a very good second week for Democrats. As before, Thursday was more Democratic than Wednesday, and Friday was more Democratic than Thursday. Moreover, the last five days of early voting saw more ballots cast – 211,552 in person for that period compared to 180,984 for the first seven days. What I’ve heard about the primary voting history suggests Dems pulled ahead of Rs by the end, but there’s a lot of people with unknown partisan history – about a quarter of the total – who have voted as well. Some fraction of that is people who were not eligible to vote in Harris County before 2009, for reasons such as being too young or not living here yet, but I’m a bit concerned about that because more people voted in the Democratic primary here in 2008 than have ever voted for a candidate of either party in a non-Presidential year before now. There’s more room for November Republicans in that total than there is for November Democrats, since so many of the latter now have a primary history. Here’s Dr. Murray’s take of how things look, which he posted before Friday’s numbers came in.

Finally, at the state level, early voting in the top 15 counties is up about 60% over 2006. Harris and Hidalgo more than doubled, Fort Bend and Montgomery nearly doubled, while El Paso and Nueces were basically flat. Don’t think this means much for final turnout, but you never know. There were 4,553,987 votes cast in the 2002 Governor’s race, and 4,399,116 such votes in 2006. I am confident this year will exceed 2006, and just on population growth should pass 2002. Let’s say 4.7 million, as a wild guess. Feel free to make your own.

The long ballot

Yes, the ballot you will see this November is as long as any has ever been. But let’s not lose perspective.

If it seems like that Harris County ballot you got in the mail is long, it is. Veteran election watchers say it is the longest they can recall.

The ballot is so long that it requires 61 cents to mail in your vote. Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Gerry Birnberg joked, “We’re real close to a poll tax here.”

Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman recently gave a vivid demonstration of the daunting list voters face Nov. 2 by unfolding a ballot that extended to nearly her height.

[…]

There are several reasons for the lengthy ballot.

First among them is that all the judicial seats, with the exception of a few justices of the peace, are contested.

“Before 2008, there were a lot of folks who did not believe Democrats could win countywide elections in Harris County,” Birnberg said. Emboldened by the party’s success in winning most judicial seats two years ago, Democrats are challenging the remaining Republican incumbents, Birnberg said.

Give or take an unexpired term or two and a charter referendum or three, the actual number of races is the same as it was in 2006 and 2002 and pretty much every non-Presidential year you’re likely to remember. The difference is the number of contested races. By my count, in 2006 there were 56 Republican judges who did not have a challenger; in 2002, 30 Republican judges, plus then-District Clerk Charles Bacarisse got off opponent-free. (County Clerk Beverly Kaufman had only a Libertarian opponent in 2002.) The number of races was about the same, it’s just that the number of races in which you have a choice to make is much larger this year. Why that’s being characterized as some kind of burden and not as a good thing for democracy is unclear to me. PDiddie has more.

By the way, the early voting locations and schedules are now up. It’ll be interesting to see what the volume is for early voting, and it will be difficult to project final turnout based on early voting volume, since this year will likely be heavier than usual due to the fire. But that won’t stop anyone from guessing, least of all me.

Chron overview of the County Clerk race

Here’s the Chron overview story of the County Clerk race between Democrat Ann Harris Bennett and Republican Stan Stanart to replace the retiring Beverly Kaufman. This is the bit that interested me:

Where Bennett and Stanart diverge is their approach to the job. Bennett, as a former legal assistant, researcher and court coordinator, said she has a better feel for the customer-service aspects of the job. Stanart makes his pitch as the man with the technology background to make more of the county courts’ work paperless, and as a tax fighter who will bring his conservative background to controlling costs. His website warns, “Stop socialism.”

Kaufman breaks it down this way: “She has a stronger courts background. He has a stronger technical background.”

The Republican incumbent is not endorsing a candidate. She endorsed Stanart’s opponent in the Republican primary election, Kevin Mauzy, her chief deputy.

Yes, that’s what we really need in the County Clerk’s office, someone dedicated to stopping the forces of socialism from…well, it’s not clear what, exactly. I don’t suppose such details really matter to Stanart.

I note that Kaufman has not endorsed Stanart. This is the second time he’s run for a countywide office, and the second time he’s defeated a more mainstream, establishment Republican in the primary; in 2008, he and Mike “Mister Debbie” Riddle, with the backing of Michael Wolfe, knocked off incumbent Harris County Department of Education trustees in March. Thankfully, they lost in November. More to the point, they ran behind most other Republicans on the ballot:

Candidate Office Votes Pct ============================================== Ed Emmett County Judge 600,311 53.15 Paul Bennetcourt Tax Assessor 586,727 51.50 Pat Lykos District Atty 563,431 50.21 Theresa Chang District Clerk 540,992 48.94 Mike Stafford County Atty 538,486 48.61 Mike Riddle HCDE Trustee 523,138 47.49 Stan Stanart HCDE Trustee 520,778 47.42 Tommy Thomas Sheriff 495,246 43.72

The low score by any GOP judicial candidate was 523,551 votes, for 47.52%, by Georgia Akers running for an unexpired term on Probate Court #1. I think it’s safe to say that neither Stanart nor Riddle had much crossover support, and in fact probably lost more Republican support to their Democratic opponents than anyone not named Tommy Thomas. We’ll see how that goes this year. What I know is that Stanart ran for HCDE Trustee in 2008 not because he had any ideas about being an HCDE Trustee but because he wanted to get elected to something so he could fight his fight against socialism. He may have some ideas about being County Clerk, but really, he’s running for the same reason as in 2008. Ann Harris Bennett, whose interview you can listen to here, is running because she wants to be County Clerk and to do the job of County Clerk. That’s pretty much what this race comes down to.

County receives voting equipment

From the inbox:

On Monday, Sept. 20 at 11 a.m., Harris County received the first of what will be several shipments of election equipment from counties across Texas. The delivery begins the gradual gathering of equipment needed to conduct the Nov. 2nd election in Harris County. In the wake of the fire which destroyed the County’s election equipment, County Clerk Beverly Kaufman formulated a plan to conduct the County’s election utilizing purchased and loaned election equipment.

“I’m pleased to report that colleagues across the state have responded to the call for assistance,” said Kaufman, chief elections officer of the county. “And, I ‘m very thankful that the loaned and purchased equipment may enable a distribution at the 736 Election Day polling locations which meets the Texas Administrative Code (TAC) allocation formula.” The County Clerk anticipates having 5,300 direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines for Election Day.

According to Clerk Kaufman, the TAC Election Day allocation formula requires a poll to have two DREs for fewer than 300 voters, four for 301 to 600 voters, six for 601 to 900 voters and two for each additional 300 voters. On Election Day, the County Clerk expects to deploy no less than 4 and no more than 11 voting machines per a poll with paper ballots as a back-up.

The first batch of election equipment which totals 875 pieces comes from Ft. Bend and Tarrant County. Harris County has accepted assistance offers from 14 counties and one city. Together, the assisting counties are providing 2,146 pieces of electronic voting equipment and accessories, including 399 Judges Booth Controllers (JBC) 1,104 eSlates with booths and 278 Disabled Access Units with booths. Additionally, counties are providing 4,056 booths, 1,675 ballot boxes with accompanying locks and keys.

At this point, the assisting entities include Bexer, Brazoria, Comal, Dallas, Denton, Ft. Bend, Galveston, Gregg, Grimes, Jefferson, Lubbock, Montgomery, Travis, Tarrant and Wharton County, the City of Friendswood, and Arapahoe County in Colorado.

Good to have friends, obviously. Here’s hoping everything else goes off smoothly.

County says it’s as ready as it’s going to be for the election

We won’t have as many voting machines as we’d originally planned, but the Harris County Clerk thinks we’ll have enough to get by.

In addition to the [3100 new machines Commissioners Court authorized them to buy], the county has received pledges of an additional 1,637 loaner machines from other counties, County Clerk spokesman Hector de Leon said. Before the fire, the county had planned to use 5,726 eSlate voting machines and disabled access units. The county is awaiting delivery of 4,737 total machines from the vendor and other counties.

[…]

The replacements translate to an average of 6.4 machines at each of the 736 polling stations, compared with 7.8 machines per voting location originally planned.

County Clerk Beverly Kaufman also will give voters the option to cast paper ballots this year for the first time in a decade. Early voting begins on Oct. 18.

Assuming we actually receive all of those machines in time for the start of Early Voting, then we should be all right. Just curious here, who is planning to ask for a paper ballot when you show up to vote? Leave a comment and let me know.

Interview with Ann Harris Bennett

Ann Harris Bennett

Ann Harris Bennett is the Democratic nominee to succeed retiring Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman. Bennett is a 14-year employee of the county, having worked as the Court Coordinator for the 55th and 152nd District Courts. As we know, there’s a lot going on with the County Clerk’s office right now, and there will be even more after the election when all those eSlate machines need to be permanently replaced. These were some of the things we talked about:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle on the 2010 Elections page.

Paper ballots: Views differ

One reason why Harris County will make paper ballots available to anyone who wants them this year is because Beverly Kaufman is afraid we won’t get enough replacement voting machines in time for the election.

In a letter to county elections officials across the state, Kaufman writes that Harris County is in “desperate need of election equipment. Despite a commitment from Hart InterCivic to manufacture and provide eSlate equipment to conduct the upcoming election, there is not sufficient time to produce enough equipment to meet the needs of Harris County.”

[…]

The urgent tone of Kaufman’s request for loaner machines from other counties contrasts with her calm assurances to the public. Even as the fire still burned, she asserted that voting will remain as convenient as ever.

The language of the letter to elections officials across the state is meant to communicate a serious situation, not a hopeless one, Kaufman said. “We needed to impress upon people that we need their help,” she said.

You can read the letter here. The situation is “desperate” because there’s no time to delay. If you can’t help us now, you can’t help us, and we really need your help. What fascinated me about this story was the completely divergent views about paper ballots expressed by the local party chairs:

Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill said he understands that Kaufman is operating under challenging conditions, but that the party prefers to use electronic voting as much as possible.

“It prevents fraud at the ballot box,” Woodfill said. “If you revert back to paper, you have a lot of the issues involving voter fraud.”

A hybrid system also would necessitate the re-training of election judges and poll watchers, he said.

The county’s Democratic Party actually recommended a hybrid election day voting system, said Chairman Gerry Birnberg.

Paper ballots are less vulnerable to fraud, Birnberg said.

“In a paper ballot situation, you can always go back and manually recount,” Birnberg said. “How do recount an electronic voting machine?”

I actually agree with Woodfill about the greater potential for fraud with paper ballots. It’s what we see today, as the vast majority of voter fraud investigations, including all of the ones that AG Greg Abbott prosecuted in his million-dollar effort to combat the “epidemic” of voter fraud he believed was happening, involved paper absentee ballots. The irony of all this, of course, is that none of this genuine fraud would have been affected in any way by the voter ID legislation that Woodfill and Abbott and so many other Republicans desperately want to pass, since fraud by voter impersonation is basically unheard of. Woodfill’s concern about the potential for fraud with paper ballots is reasonable, but he and his partymates have never shown any interest in doing something about it, as they prefer instead to try to solve a “problem” that doesn’t exist.

As for Birnberg, the point he’s making is that however many times you count an eSlate machine’s memory stick, you’ll always get the same answer regardless of whether or not the stick is faulty or fraudulent. This is true, but it’s also true that ballots that have been filled out manually may be counted or not depending on an election official’s interpretation of the voter’s intent. The example of certain counties in Florida in 2000, where ballots that had the Democratic box checked for President and the name “Al Gore” written in for the write-in slot were discarded because the voter had selected more than one candidate, will always serve as Exhibit A for this. Even without room for interpretation, if you have a million paper ballots to count by hand, I can just about guarantee you’ll get a different result the second and third and fourth times you count them. Having paper ballots that have been printed by a voting machine, which thus eliminates the “not filled out correctly” problem, and which can serve as a sanity check and an emergency backup in the event there are ever doubts about the integrity of a memory stick, is clearly the best situation, and it’s one I hope the next County Clerk will work towards as we start the process of buying permanent replacements for the lost eSlates.

I myself don’t believe that paper ballots in the context of in-person voting are more or less likely to be susceptible to fraud than voting machine ballots are. The basic procedure for securing them, which largely boils down to “Never let any ballot be in the sole unsupervised possession of a single person”, is the same either way. As long as we can ensure that, I’ll be as confident as I can be about the integrity of the process.

More on the county’s plan for the election

Here’s a press release from the County Clerk’s office about the current plans for conducting the election in the aftermath of the fire.

“The public should know that a plan had to be enacted quickly to be able to conduct the election in accordance with the election calendar set by the state,” said [Harris County Clerk Beverly] Kaufman, the chief election officer of the County. “Early voting will be conducted in a manner that is familiar to voters. We will obtain enough electronic voting equipment that is compatible with technology we have in place and allocate it to early voting locations as usual. The goal is the same for Election Day. But, if we fall short of the goal, paper ballots will be on hand to ensure that all voters are afforded equal access to the voting process at the poll.”

“As we face this unforeseen challenge, I’m hearten that all entities that have a role in creating the county’s election infrastructure are working as a team to ensure all registered voters are provided access to the voting process in a manner consistent with voting laws,” added Kaufman. Texas election law provides that the administration of an election must be a coordinated effort between the chief election officer of the county, the chairpersons of the political parties, citizens (via their political party structure) and County government officials.

For this election, at least one electronic voting machine that provides people with disabilities the opportunity to vote independently, the Disabled Automated Unit (DAU), will be allocated to each of the polling location. More importantly, on Election Day, 736 polling locations are scheduled to be opened. An increase of eight compared to the 728 polls opened during the 2008 November election.

“It is more important than ever for voters to know all the important dates leading up to Election Day and take advantage of the voting options which the law affords them,” Kaufman concluded, urging registered voters to visit the County Clerk’s election website or Texas Secretary of State’s website to obtain the calendar for this election cycle.

As I said before, I feel pretty good about the county’s ability to move forward and conduct a reasonably smooth election in the wake of this catastrophe. That’s to their credit, but I still have to wonder why they’re just making this sort of contingency plan now, instead of already having one that has had some kind of simulation testing performed on it. Is it really the case that nobody ever wondered what we might do if the building where every single machine is stored caught fire or flooded or something? As the Chron opines, we damn well better give it some thought now, so that we’re never in this position again. And while we’re at it, since we’re going to have to replace all these machines anyway, let’s also give some thought to equipping those replacements with printers, so that there can be a paper backup available for every vote. At the very least, let’s make sure whatever we get has the latest and greatest security features.

Paper ballots on the menu

The county’s plan for dealing with the loss of all of its voting machines includes some low technology.

Despite a fire that destroyed Harris County’s voting machines Friday, County Clerk Beverly Kaufman said she intends to keep all polling places open with replacement machines on Nov. 2.

Commissioners Court approved Kaufman’s emergency plan this afternoon to spend $13.6 million to buy 2,325 electronic voting machines and supporting equipment.

“Your polling place is going to be open early and on election day. You’ll be able to vote conveniently as you’re accustomed to doing,” Kaufman said afterward.

Kaufman’s request included 1.4 million paper ballots, which will be distributed to polling stations as a backup in case a shortage of machines leads to long lines.

As PDiddie notes, it was reported by Mary Benton that paper ballots will be made available to “anyone who asks” for one. The statement about keeping all polling places open is to address the concerns of Democratic elected officials, who wrote a letter to the Justice Department about the possibility of precinct consolidation and fewer voting machines in minority areas.

I feel like the immediate concerns have been addressed, and I’m reassured that everyone involved is going to do the right thing. There’s still a lot of uncertainty, though – how many machines will we have, will election judges know what to do with the paper ballots, what happens if the fire marshal makes a ruling of arson – and I don’t see that getting cleared up any time soon. I’d still like to know why it is that all the machines were stored in one place, and why we didn’t already have a written disaster recovery plan. Imagine how screwed we’d be if this had all happened a month from now. We’d better take the lessons we learn from this very seriously, that’s for sure. Hair Balls has more.

Cause of fire that destroyed voting machines still not determined

I sure hope it’s not arson. Lord knows, though, there’s a million conspiracy theories you could spin if it turns out it was.

Houston’s fire marshal’s office hasn’t made a ruling on whether Friday’s early-morning fire was accidental or deliberately set, said Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman, who hopes to hear something on the cause early this week.

“It would break my heart to think someone would do something like this to the election process,” she said, adding that she was unaware of anyone who might have had a motive to burn down the building.

Maybe you don’t have a suspect in mind, but it’s not hard at all to imagine a motive. Everyone knows Bill White will need a strong showing in Harris County to be able to win the Governor’s race. Perhaps someone who doesn’t want him to win decided to do something about it. I’m not saying this is what happened – we don’t even know if the fire was deliberately set or not yet – just that this is what everyone will be thinking if it turns out it was arson. See the comment thread at Political Wire and Burka for examples of this. Believe me, I very much hope this is a tragic accident.

Kaufman said she and the office’s election administrator, John German, are focusing on figuring out where 15 to 30 staff members will report for work, what the county needs to hold the election and how to execute and pay for the plan. The office is exploring whether to borrow machines from counterparts across the state, among other possibilities.

Harris County Commissioners Court will meet in an emergency session Monday to receive the county clerk’s proposed recovery plan.

Joe Stinebaker, spokesman for Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, said Saturday he hasn’t a clue whether the financial needs will be minor or major. County reserve funds may be available for the expense, Stinebaker said.

So, um, does this mean that the county didn’t already have a disaster recovery plan in place? If you’re going to have all of the voting equipment in one place, shouldn’t someone have asked the question “Hey, what do we do if that place burns down”? Speaking as an IT guy, I can tell you that businesses ask these questions, and they make it someone’s job to come up with and test a plan to deal with things like a sudden, catastrophic loss of a data center. Is this really saying that the county had never considered this particular scenario? Because that sure seems like very poor planning to me.

Elections equipment damaged in fire

Uh oh.

Harris County voting machines were heavily damaged in a 3-alarm fire at warehouse in north Houston early this morning.

The fire broke out about 4:15 a.m. at the county’s election equipment storage facility in the 600 block of Canino near Marnie, which is near the Melrose Park, fire officials said.

Firefighters extinguished the flames at the football-field size warehouse about four hours later.

No injuries were reported.

Voting machines, including eSlate equipment, were stored at the nearly 27,000-square-foot facility, county officials said. They were heavily damaged in the blaze.

County election officials said they expect to talk with neighboring counties to possibly use some of their voting machines in the upcoming election.

This could be very, very bad. County Clerk Beverly Kaufman has sent out a press release saying she will have a briefing to address this today at 11 AM at the 4th Floor Conference Room, Harris County Administration Building at 1001 Preston. I sure hope the county has a disaster recovery plan for this sort of thing.

UPDATE: County Clerk Kaufman puts a good face on the situation.

Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman this morning said she is confident of timely, clean elections in November, even as a fire that destroyed the county’s entire inventory of 10,000 electronic voting machines still burned.

Kaufman urged voters to cast their ballots early to help the county cope with a possible shortage of equipment on election day.

“Because I don’t expect to have 10,000 pieces to work with, no matter what we do, I’m sure that we’re going to be putting on a full court press urging people to vote early,” Kaufman said.

Early voting begins in 52 days, so you can bet they’ll both be pushing for people to use it, since it requires fewer machines, and will be scrambling to get enough of them in place for it. According to Hair Balls:

The Secretary of State is helping Kaufman reach out to the 114 other counties in Texas that use the same voting machines as Harris County and she expects to receive many loaners. She is also negotiating replacement equipment from the vendor, though Kaufman did not have specifics at a Friday morning media conference.

I sure hope we can get enough equipment. Best of luck getting it done.

Casey and the Chron on an elections administrator

Rick Casey sums up the recent proposal by County Judge Ed Emmett to consider adopting a non-partisan elections administrator for Harris County:

While Dallas and Tarrant counties have found it a source of electoral confidence and stability, Bexar County went through a dark period when one administrator was convicted of stealing about $50,000 in state funds, and another one, though clearly incompetent and lazy, couldn’t be fired because state law requires a 4⁄5 vote of the board, and unrelated politics kept the Republican county clerk from following the lead of the Republican county judge.

The commissioners court responded by abolishing the office and returning, for a time, to the old arrangement before it re-established the election administration office.

They agreed with Commissioner Lee: The leadership is more important than the structure.

Which is more or less how I feel about it, though I have a preference for it to be an elected office, because at least then the method of removing a poor administrator is well understood and doesn’t depend on any political oddities. As I said before, you can never truly eliminate the politics from something like this, which is why having these positions be elected is as good as anything.

I didn’t discuss the specific politics of Judge Emmett’s proposal when I wrote about this before because I just wanted to explore the idea itself. Yesterday’s Chron editorial did a good job of highlighting that aspect of it.

All too often it seems that Commissioners Court is making decisions that should be made by Harris County voters.

That’s why we are suspicious of the motives of Emmett and [County Clerk Beverly] Kaufman in pushing for the creation of an election czar who would be appointed by Commissioners Court and be overseen by a board that includes the judge, the county clerk, the tax assessor and representatives of both political parties.

In GOP party primaries this spring incumbent Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez, who Emmett helped appoint, was defeated by former County Treasurer Don Sumners, a tea party advocate who has criticized GOP commissioners in the past and would probably be a bigger nuisance for them than a Democrat. In the county clerk contest Kaufman supported her longtime chief deputy, Kevin Mauzy, but he lost to computer technician Stan Stanart. We wonder whether Emmett and Kaufman would be pushing for re-aligning election duties if their favorites were still in line to exercise those responsibilities.

It’s pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that no, we would not be talking about this at all if Vasquez and Mauzy were on the ballot. Which ought to be a good reason for you to vote for Ann Harris Bennett and Diane Trautman for County Clerk and Tax Assessor, respectively. I mean, if even Emmett and Kaufman think the Republican nominees aren’t up to the job, why should you? I’ll still be willing to discuss various ideas for changing how we do elections in Harris County, from combining voter registration and elections administration in one office to making all of those duties part of a non-partisan appointed office, after the election. But let’s see how the election goes first, if only to see if there’s still a sense of urgency about it.

Emmett calls for “elections czar”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett thinks we could use a dedicated elections supervisor.

Proponents of an elections czar say an appointee would be insulated from accusations and lawsuits alleging partisanship in carrying out the duties of the office.

In late 2008, the state Democratic Party said in a lawsuit that then-Tax Assessor Paul Bettencourt, a Republican, had illegally blocked thousands of people from registering to vote. The lawsuit was settled last fall.

Bettencourt resigned in December 2008 to work in the private sector, just weeks after being elected to a third four-year term.

“The Democrats’ lawsuit against the tax office and Paul Bettencourt’s abrupt departure were game changers,” Emmett said. “It brought to everybody’s attention that any time you have partisan offices running elections, you’re just sort of leaving yourself open to lawsuits.”

First things first: Can we please drop the tiresome “Czar” appellation for anything that requires a person in charge of it? Thanks.

Now then. I’m willing to hear what Judge Emmett has to say. Certainly, there’s a case to be made for combining the election-related businesses of the Tax Assessor and County Clerk’s offices, either in one of them – County Clerk would be the logical choice – or in its own separate office. No elected official ever wants to cede power, so I give Emmett credit for bringing it up at a time when both the County Clerk and the Tax Assessor are on their way out. If there ever was a time to discuss this, now is that time.

I want to caution against the idea that you can somehow divorce the function of running elections, including voter registration, from the partisan political process. It’s the same thing with electing judges: We may take this away from the voters, but in doing so we’d be handing it to people who were elected by the voters in partisan elections and who are subject to partisan pressures as part of their jobs. I believe it would be harder to hold those who made the appointment responsible for a bad choice, because this is only one aspect of their job, than it would be to hold the person doing the job responsible. The best you can hope for under any scenario is for the person or persons responsible to be dedicated, impartial professionals, and the best way to have that is for an informed and engaged electorate to demand it and enforce it at the ballot box, regardless of who they enforce it on. Your guess is as good as mine for how to achieve that.

Finally, I’ve seen a lot of discussion about this idea on Carl Whitmarsh’s mailing list, with several people chiming in to say that various other counties have non-partisan, appointed elections administrators, and their experience has generally been very good. I’m glad to hear that, and I would certainly hope that if Harris County follows this path that we have a similar experience. Having the county chairs of both the Democratic and Republican parties involved in the selection process seems to help. The question is what happens if the experience isn’t good. Does this person have to be periodically re-appointed, or re-confirmed? Under what conditions can he or she be fired? How can you isolate this person from political pressure, yet ensure they are accountable? These are some of the things I’ll be looking for when the commission Judge Emmett wants the Court to study this idea presents its plan.

Two judicial candidates file lawsuit over ballot order

sigh

Two lawyers seeking Democratic nominations as county court judges today each filed a pro se suit against Gerry Birnberg, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party, alleging they will be “irreparably harmed” because they aren’t listed first in their races on the primary ballot.

Dennis Slate, a Houston solo, alleges in a petition he filed in Harris County 164th District Court that, as a result of a primary ballot drawing conducted by Birnberg on Jan. 7, his name should be first on the primary ballot for County Criminal Court No. 13. However, Slate alleges in Dennis M. Slate v. Gerry Birnberg, et al. that his primary opponent, John V. O’Sullivan, is listed first on the official Democratic Primary ballot that Slate alleges was made public on Feb. 4 by Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman and her office.

Meanwhile, in Javier Valenzuela v. Gerry Birnberg, et al., also filed today in Harris County 334th District Court, Javier Valenzuela alleges he should have been listed on the ballot before his primary opponent, Damon Crenshaw, because of the Jan. 7 primary ballot drawing. Crenshaw and Valenzuela are seeking the nomination for judge in County Civil Court-at-Law No. 3.

Slate and Valenzuela each allege in their petitions that Birnberg has “refused” to correct the errors on the ballot, and they allege they will be “irreparably harmed” by the ballot order.

“It is a well known fact that many times candidates in the first position will receive additional votes based entirely on them being located in the first position,” Valenzuela alleges in his petition.

I’ve heard that, and though I’ve not seen any studies, I believe it’s likely to be true. I can’t evaluate these suits on their merits, but I will say that it’s ridiculous to me that in the age of electronic voting machines we’re still drawing for and arguing over ballot position. There’s no good reason why they can’t be programmed to randomize the ballot order so this issue is moot. Yes, I know, the eSlate machines we have are not able to do that, but as Sue Schechter noted in her interview, we’ll be getting ready to buy their replacements soon. I for one would like to see this capability made a requirement for the next machines. If that means existing elections code needs to be altered to allow for it, then I hope someone will take it up in the next Legislature. There’s just no reason to go through this.

Sue Schechter announces for County Clerk

Former State Rep. and Harris County Democratic Party Chair Sue Schechter has announced her intent to run for the to-be-open Harris County Clerk position next year. Schechter was known to be interested in this position, and now she’s made it official. I’ve reprinted her press release beneath the fold, to which I’ll add two observations. One is that she’s already lined up a decent amount of support for her candidacy – there are a lot of elected officials and other heavy hitters in her list of who’s with her. And two, the timing of all this has been just awful for Council Member Sue Lovell, whose interest in the Clerk’s office is longstanding, as Lovell is engaged in a runoff for her Council seat that won’t be resolved until a week after the filing period opens. Will these things deter her from running? Hard to say. As for the Republican side of things, incumbent Clerk Beverly Kaufman has made no bones about whom she would like to see succeed her, though her man Kevin Mauzy will almost certainly not go unchallenged. It’ll be fun to watch, that’s for sure. Click on for Schechter’s release.

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Early voting: One more day

Tomorrow is the last day of early voting. If you haven’t voted by 7 PM on Friday, you’ll need to show up at your precinct polling location on Tuesday to have a say in this election. Here’s a press release from County Clerk Beverly Kaufman with some information about how things will be on Tuesday:

Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman announced today that 728 polls will be open and ready to receive registered voters on Tuesday, Nov. 3, General Election Day, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. According to the Clerk, 6,600 pieces of election equipment will be allocated throughout the county and almost 5,000 election clerks will be working during this election.

“The election infrastructure is set. I strongly encourage registered voters who did not vote during the early voting period to consider doing so on Election Day”, said Clerk Kaufman, the chief elections officer of the County. “This election cycle may not be as captivating as a national election, but it may be more important.”

During the upcoming Harris County Joint Election 120 individuals will be vying for 40 positions in political subdivisions within County. Of those, sixty-two are candidates for City of Houston public office, including the positions of mayor, controller and city council. Overall, there a total of 60 contests on the ballot. Of those, 20 are propositions. The most prominent contests are the State constitutional amendments.

“Voters should be aware that anytime an election includes statewide propositions those items will appear first on the ballot. In this instance, it means that all voters, whether they reside in Houston or other political subdivisions, will see the 11 state propositions at the top of their ballot before they see anything else.”

The County Clerk reminded voters that the law provides that a voter can ONLY vote in contests offered by a political subdivision which is connected to the physical address in which a voter is registered to vote. To find out which political subdivisions are connected to a voter’s address, a voter may visit the following link on the Tax Assessor Collectors website: http://www.hctax.net/ASP/streetguide/frameset.asp. An individual may also check voter registration status with the Tax office by calling 713. 368. 2200 or by visiting http://www.tax.co.harris.tx.us/Voter/voter.aspx.

The Clerk also reminded voter to know where they are going to vote before leaving their homes on Election Day. The law provides that on Election Day a voter must vote at the poll where the precinct the voter is registered to vote is voting. For voter identification purposes at the poll, registered voters are urged to take at least ONE of the following acceptable documents:

1. A voter registration certificate;

2. a driver’s license or personal identification card issued to the voter by the Department of Public Safety or a similar document issued to the voter by an agency of another state, regardless of whether the license or card has expired;

3. a form of identification containing the voter’s photograph that establishes the voter’s identity;

4. a birth certificate or other document confirming birth that is admissible in a court of law and establishes the voter’s identity;

5. United States citizenship papers issued to the voter;

6. a United States passport issued to the voter;

7. official mail addressed to the voter, by name, from a governmental entity;

8. A copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or other government document that shows the voter’s name and address.

For more Election Day information voters may visit www.harrisvotes.com and click ‘Find Election Day Poll and View Voter Specific Ballot.’ Voters may also call 713.755.6965, Harris County’s automated election information line.

And we now have the early voting totals from today, in which 8722 showed up to vote. The good news is that this was the best day so far, slightly better than yesterday. The bad news is that this total trailed its counterpart from 2003 by over 3000 ballots. I don’t expect tomorrow to be anything like the 18,000+ votes that were cast on the final day of early voting in 2003, but even with the predicted rain there probably will be more than 70,000 in-person votes cast, or somewhere in the neighborhood of 5000 fewer than 2003. Where this year has really lagged is in mail ballots – 7200 so far, versus over 14,000 at this point then, and over 17,000 total. I don’t know what that bodes for final turnout, but I’ll be thinking about it and will make my guess sometime after the final numbers are in. In the meantime, if you haven’t voted yet, please do so soon. Thanks very much.

Early voting, five days in

We’ve completed the first business week of early voting, and the spreadsheet has been updated to show the totals so far. Thursday was the slowest day so far, with 2889 in-person ballots, which I attribute to the torrential rain in the morning – I don’t know about you, but my office building was sparsely attended that day, and I presume a bunch of folks who might have voted decided to put it off. Friday was the strongest day as 4561 people showed up. That brings the in-person total to 19,366, or just a smidge more than the 19,192 who had showed up in 2003.

Counting mail ballots, 18.5% of all early votes had been cast by this time in 2003. If we assume that the same proportion holds here, a total of 125,227 in-person and mail ballots will be cast by the end of next week. Here’s what that translates to at various levels of early vote participation.

EV share Total votes Total Houston ===================================== 25% 500,908 385,699 30% 417,423 321,416 35% 357,791 275,499 40% 313,067 241,062 45% 278,282 214,277

“Total Houston” is the Houston share of the Harris County total, assuming that 77% of the vote comes from Houston. I think the 35 and 40% scenarios are the most likely, but who knows? Maybe all the tit-for-tatting going on between Locke and Brown has revved up interest a bit.

A press release from County Clerk Beverly Kaufman, commenting on the first four days of Early Voting, is beneath the fold. I think she got her numbers confused between 2003 and this year, but no big deal. The big question now isn’t “How many early votes will there be” as much as it is “How much of the vote will be early”. What’s your guess for that?

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County Clerk Kaufman to retire

Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman will not run for another term in 2010.

Kaufman, a Republican in her fourth four-year term, said in a news release that she informed County Judge Ed Emmett and county commissioners this morning of her decision to retire after serving out her current term.

“To the people of Harris County, I thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for giving me such a tremendous opportunity,” she said. “I was raised on a farm in neighboring Waller County. I graduated from Waller High School. I went on to be elected County Clerk in the third largest county in America and had the privilege to lead national professional organizations and received many honors and awards on your behalf.”

She said she wanted to make the announcement now to allow for an open election for the office in November 2010.

My best wishes to Kaufman in her retirement. I expect there will be a spirited primary in both parties for this office, which I’ve thought for some time now would be a high profile target next year. I figure we’ll start hearing some names get floated by Monday at the latest.

Election tidbits for 9/29

Meet Dallas DA Craig Watkins’ Republican opponent. I thought he came across better than the commenters did, but I feel pretty good about Watkins’ chances nonetheless. Via Grits.

Some love for Bill White, including the Bill Whites for Bill White ActBlue page.

Hank Gilbert speaks to WFAA in Dallas.

Get ready for Teabagging II: Electric Boogaloo.

Martha, John, and Stace comment on the Gene Locke robocalls, in particular the one from County Clerk Beverly Kaufmann.

Rick Perry claims his website was hacked. The evidence suggests otherwise.

Don Large, the now-former campaign manager for Council candidate Carlos Obando, informed me today that he is filing paperwork to run for Harris County Republican Party Chair. He’ll be the third challenger to current Chair Jared Woodfill.