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Don Sumners

Time to pay attention to the HCDE again

Some highlights from the HCDE meeting agenda for this Thursday at 1 PM, as emailed to me:

1. Changing board meeting dates.

2. Michael Wolfe wants to name our Post Oak facility for his deceased mother.

3. Create a Home School Division.

4. Create a School Choice Division.

5. Create a board services division that reports directly to the board. Transparency anyone?

6. Create a new travel policy for superintendent and board – no reimbursement for out of town travel or training. Most board training conferences are out of town.

7. Change superintendent’s spending authority without board approval from $50,000 to $5,000. If something were to happen at one of our schools and they needed emergency repairs, etc., the superintendents hands would be tied.

8. Fire current attorney and hire a new one.

9. New construction for special ed school and recovery high school are still on hold.

The meeting is tomorrow, Thursday, at 1:00pm at the main HCDE Administration building, 6300 Irvington. We had a couple of blissful years of sanity with the HCDE after 2008, but the craziness came back in 2014 when Michael Wolfe and Don Sumners were elected to at large positions. If you have the time and capacity to attend and keep an eye on them and their shenanigans, that would be a good thing to do.

Precinct analysis: Bennett v Sullivan

Ann Harris Bennett was the only countywide Democratic candidate to be trailing on Election Day as the early voting totals were posted, but as the night went on she cut into the deficit and finally took the lead around 10 PM, going on to win by a modest margin. Here’s how that broke down:


Dist  Sullivan  Bennett  Sullivan%  Bennett%
============================================
CD02   168,936  105,778     61.50%    38.50%
CD07   147,165  106,727     57.96%    42.04%
CD09    29,855  103,511     22.39%    77.61%
CD10    83,213   34,795     70.51%    29.49%
CD18    53,558  148,586     26.49%    73.51%
CD29    41,555   88,942     31.84%    68.16%
				
SBOE6  357,083  249,953     58.82%    41.18%
				
HD126   37,003   24,186     60.47%    39.53%
HD127   50,028   23,460     68.08%    31.92%
HD128   42,659   16,238     72.43%    27.57%
HD129   44,072   24,777     64.01%    35.99%
HD130   60,429   20,277     74.88%    25.12%
HD131    8,121   37,906     17.64%    82.36%
HD132   39,094   29,321     57.14%    42.86%
HD133   50,116   25,241     66.50%    33.50%
HD134   49,352   39,410     55.60%    44.40%
HD135   33,528   26,112     56.22%    43.78%
HD137    9,664   17,099     36.11%    63.89%
HD138   28,827   22,096     56.61%    43.39%
HD139   13,707   38,266     26.37%    73.63%
HD140    7,556   19,790     27.63%    72.37%
HD141    5,934   32,109     15.60%    84.40%
HD142   11,599   33,182     25.90%    74.10%
HD143   10,372   22,294     31.75%    68.25%
HD144   11,810   15,188     43.74%    56.26%
HD145   12,669   21,519     37.06%    62.94%
HD146   11,323   36,903     23.48%    76.52%
HD147   14,119   43,254     24.61%    75.39%
HD148   20,434   26,999     43.08%    56.92%
HD149   16,639   26,389     38.67%    61.33%
HD150   50,472   25,358     66.56%    33.44%
				
CC1     82,916  231,040     26.41%    73.59%
CC2    134,067  117,084     53.38%    46.62%
CC3    202,128  149,943     57.41%    42.59%
CC4    220,415  149,294     59.62%    40.38%
Ann Harris Bennett

Ann Harris Bennett

This was Bennett’s fourth try for office. She had run for County Clerk in 2010 and 2014 against Stan Stanart, and for Tax Assessor in 2012 against now-incumbent Mike Sullivan, losing by fewer than 2,500 votes out of over 1.1 million cast. She becomes the fifth Tax Assessor since 2009, following Paul Bettencourt (who resigned shortly after being re-elected in 2008), Leo Vasquez (appointed to replace Bettencourt), Don Sumners (defeated Vasquez in the 2010 primary and won in November to complete the term), and Sullivan (defeated Sumners in the 2012 primary and then Bennett in November).

Incumbent Tax Assessors tend to do pretty well in re-election efforts. Bettencourt was the top votegetter in 2004, leading even George W. Bush by over 20,000 votes. He trailed only Ed Emmett in 2008, finishing 16K votes ahead of John McCain. Despite his loss, Sullivan was the high scorer among Republicans, beating all the judicial candidates by at least 19K votes. Only Sullivan in 2012 and Sumners in 2010, both first-timers on the November ballot, failed to make the upper echelon. Assuming she runs for re-election in 2020, it will be interesting to see if that same pattern holds for the Democrat Bennett as it has done for her Republican predecessors.

It’s instructive again to compare these results to the judicial races, as they provide a comparison to the base level of partisan support. While Sullivan finished well ahead of the Republican judicial candidates, Bennett wasn’t below the Democratic judicials; she was near the bottom, but did better than four of them. Looking at the numbers across State Rep districts, Bennett was usually a couple hundred votes below the Democratic judicial average, while Sullivan beat the Republican norm by a thousand votes or more. In HD134, he topped it by over 3,000 votes, though interestingly he wasn’t the high scorer there – Lunceford (50,193), Mayfield (49,754), and Bond (49,407) were all ahead of him, with Guiney (49,209), Halbach (49,173), and Ellis (49,081) right behind.

My general hypothesis here is that fewer Republicans skipped this race. I observed in the Sheriff’s race overview that Democratic judicial candidates had more dropoff than Republican judicial candidates did, while the non-judicial Democrats did a good job of holding onto those votes. Bennett performed more like a judicial candidate, while Sullivan overperformed that metric. I assume that the exposure Tax Assessors get, since every year everyone who owns a car and/or a home has to make at least one payment to that person, helps boost their numbers in elections. Again, we’ll see if Bennett benefits from that in her next election.

This concludes my review of Harris County races. I have one more post relating to Harris County in my queue, and I plan to take at least a cursory look at Fort Bend and Dallas Counties. Again, if you have any particular questions you want me to examine, let me know. I hope you have found this all useful.

Chron overview of Harris County Tax Assessor race

It’s deja vu all over again.

Mike Sullivan

Mike Sullivan

Republican Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan once again faces a challenge from Democrat Ann Harris Bennett, a rematch from four years ago for an office that oversees billions of dollars in property tax collections, maintains voter rolls and registers more vehicles than any other county in the state.

Bennett lost to Sullivan in the 2012 election by about two-tenths of a percent, or less than 2,400 votes.

Now, she is back, with a mission to unseat Sullivan and end the succession of Republican tax assessor-collectors, including Don Sumners and now-state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, that she said represents the establishment.

“They have used (the office) in ways that I don’t think the taxpayers of Harris County would be pleased with,” the former court coordinator said.

[…]

Ann Harris Bennett

Ann Harris Bennett

Sullivan has made “customer service” his motto. He was a former city council member before becoming the county taxman, and was on the Humble ISD school board before that.

In almost four years in office, he has launched initiatives that he said touches virtually every resident of Harris County.

Among them, he said, were workshops to help people challenge their property appraisals and training sessions for high school principals in Houston ISD on how to register students as voters.

He pointed to his work with the county budget office to upgrade the office’s computers and software, and touted his creation of a military help desk to aid soldiers and their families navigate what can be complex tax rules. He said he also instituted an employee recognition program to improve morale.

He also points to decisions to allow people to pay for registration renewals or other transactions with credit cards and put televisions in the lobbies of all of his offices.

“For me, it’s all about serving the public,” Sullivan said.

For Bennett, a big part of what separates her from Sullivan centers on how and when to use the office’s soapbox to advocate for issues beyond its immediate control.

Last year, Sullivan was part of a delegation of county officials whose lobbying in Austin helped torpedo a bill that would have allowed Texas voters to register online.

Sullivan said that the process already is fraught with irregularities, adding that his office regularly has to deal with discrepancies between Department of Public Safety records and information on the voter rolls, discrepancies he said would only grow with online voter registration.

Sullivan pointed to a record number of registered voters in the county this fall – close to 2.2 million – as evidence that current methods are working.

There’s two ways of looking at this race. One is that Sullivan has unquestionably been an upgrade over the two clowns that preceded him, Don Sumners and Leo Vasquez. He’s also been less political than Paul Bettencourt was. The big strike against him, which led to the Chron endorsing Bennett, is his opposition to online voter registration. He has his stated reasons, and it is true that registrations are at a record high for the county. It’s also true that this is contrary to his generally modern approach to technology in other aspects of his office, that he could have pledged to work with the DPS to fix the problems he says they have with their data, and that even if people have been able to overcome the existing obstacles to getting registered, they shouldn’t have had to overcome them when a much easier solution was available. Like the other countywide races, the partisan tide will be the biggest factor in who wins and who loses. I think Sullivan has the best chance of the three Republican incumbents to survive if the Democrats have the overall advantage. Whether he does or he doesn’t, the issue of online voter registration is not going to go away.

2016 primaries: Harris County

Though this will be the first entry published in the morning, it was the last one I wrote last night, and I’m super tired. So, I’m going to make this brief.

Harris County Dem resultsHarris County GOP results

Democratic races of interest, with about 86% of precincts reporting

District Attorney: Kim Ogg with 51%, so no runoff needed.

Sheriff: Ed Gonzalez (43%) and Jerome Moore (30%) in the runoff.

Tax Assessor: Ann Harris Bennett (61%) gets another crack at it.

Judicial races: Some close, some blowouts, some runoffs. Jim Sharp will not be on the ballot, as Candance White won easily, while the one contested district court race that featured an incumbent will go to overtime. Elaine Palmer in the 215th will face JoAnn Storey, after drawing 43% of the vote to Storey’s 28%. Those who are still smarting from Palmer’s unlovely ouster of Steve Kirkland in 2012 will get their chance to exact revenge on May 24.

Turnout: For some reason, Dem results were reporting a lot more slowly than GOP results. As of midnight, nearly 150 precincts were still out. At that time, Dem turnout had topped 200,000, so the final number is likely to be in the 210,000 to 220,000 range. That’s well short of 2008, of course, but well ahead of projections, and nobody could call it lackluster or disappointing. As was the case in 2008, some 60% of the vote came on Election Day. I think the lesson to draw here is that when there is a real Presidential race, fewer people vote early than you’d normally expect.

Republican races of interest, with 92% of precincts reporting

Sheriff: Ron Hickman, with 72%.

Tax Assessor: Mike Sullivan, with 83%. Kudos for not being that stupid, y’all.

County Attorney: Jim Leitner, with 53%.

Strange (to me) result of the night: GOP Chair Paul Simpson was forced to a runoff, against someone named Rick Ramos. Both had about 39% of the vote. What’s up with that?

Turnout: With 67 precincts to go, just over 300,000 total votes. Interestingly, that was right on Stan Stanart’s initial, exuberant projection. He nailed the GOP side, he just woefully underestimated the Dems.

Bedtime for me. I’m sure there will be plenty more to say in the coming days. What are your reactions?

Primary Day is today

From the inbox:

vote-button

“Visit www.HarrisVotes.com to ensure you go to the correct voting location and to find your personal sample ballot for the Tuesday, March 1, Republican Party and Democratic Party Primary Elections,” said Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, encouraging voters to use the information provided by the County Clerk’s election website before heading to the polls. “Voters can find everything they need to vote, including polling locations, their personal sample ballot, and a list of acceptable forms of Photo ID at www.HarrisVotes.com.”

On Election Day, polling locations will be open from 7 am to 7 pm. In Harris County, the Republican Party will have 401 polling locations and the Democratic Party 383. “Remember, voters are required to vote at the polling location their precinct is designated to vote at on Election Day. During primary elections, the political parties determine where the voting locations are situated based on their respective voter strongholds,” Stanart reminded voters.

In Texas, a registered voter may vote in either party’s Primary Election during an election cycle, but only one party, not both. Overall, in Harris County, there are over 150 races for each party. “Voters can expect to see about 50 contests on their personal ballot. I recommend voters print out their personal ballot, do their homework, and bring their marked up ballot with them into the polling booth,” advised Stanart.

At the close of Early Voting on Friday, 216,961 voters cast their ballots early, or by mail surpassing the 115,958 who voted early in the 2012 primary elections. “Voter participation in the Primary Elections is very important,” concluded Stanart. “If you have not voted, go vote. Your vote will make a difference.”

For more election information, voters can visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call 713.755.6965.

You can find your precinct location here. Do not assume that your normal November location will be open – check first and be sure. You can get a free ride from Metro to your polling station if you need it.

PDiddie names the races he’ll be watching tonight. I agree with his list, and would the four contested Dem primaries involving incumbent State Reps as well – Alma Allen in 131, Gene Wu in 137, Jessica Farrar n 148, and Hubert Vo in 149. All four are vastly better than their opponents, and a loss by any of them would be deeply embarrassing and a kick to the face. I don’t expect any of them to be in danger, but one never knows, and the stakes here are high. The only other contested-incumbent race on the Dem side of interest is in El Paso, where Rep. Mary Gonzalez is being challenged by former Rep. Chente Quintanilla in a race that’s as much about the present and future versus the past as anything else. Quintanilla is one of several former members trying to get back into the game. At least in his case, I’d prefer he stay retired.

Beyond that, I will of course be interested in the rematch in SD26, plus the open seat fight in CD15, where Dolly Elizondo has a chance to become the first Latina elected to Congress from Texas. Most of the rest of the action of interest is on the Republican side, where the usual wingnut billionaires are doing their best to buy up the Legislature, and several incumbent members of Congress are running scared of the seething hoards in their districts. Turnout will be high, which may or may not be good news for Ted Cruz. It’s especially amusing to see professional Cruz cheerleader Erica Greider freak out about Cruz voters ganging up on House Speaker Joe Straus in his primary. I find myself having to root for members like Byron Cook and Charlie Geren, not because they’re great legislators from my perspective but because they’re part of a decreasing faction that still acts like grownups. The Senate is sure to get worse with the departure of Kevin Eltife, thought there’s at least a chance a small piece of that difference could be made up by whoever replaces the execrable Troy Fraser. One must find the small victories where one can. The SBOE is always good for either an atrocity or a belly laugh, depending on how you look at it. Lastly, to my Harris County Republican friends, if you let Don Sumners beat Mike Sullivan for Tax Assessor, you deserve to never win a countywide race again.

I may or may not post results tonight, or I may save them for the morning. Whatever the case, go vote if you haven’t. Remember, you forfeit all right to bitch about who gets elected if you don’t participate.

Endorsement watch: Dudley and Sullivan

The Chron makes its endorsements in the Tax Assessor primaries.

Brandon Dudley

Brandon Dudley

It is the time of year when the Harris County tax assessor-collector gains sudden prominence: Jan. 31 is the due date to pay property taxes, and Feb. 1 is the last day to register for party primary elections. Both of those duties are handled by the tax assessor-collector’s office, in addition to vehicle registrations and title transactions. These basic services demand that the office be run with customer satisfaction and ease as the highest goals. With these priorities in mind, we endorse incumbent Mike Sullivan in the Republican primary and Brandon Dudley in the Democratic primary.

This year’s Republican primary for Harris County tax assessor-collector is a rematch from four years ago, when Mike Sullivan ousted incumbent Don Sumners. At the time, Sullivan offered a customer-focused alternative to Sumners’ office, which faced accusations of being overly politicized. The battlelines haven’t changed since. Sumners, 76, says he is running to serve as a self-proclaimed taxpayer advocate and watchdog.

“If you want an administrator, Sullivan is your man,” Sumners told the Houston Chronicle editorial board.

Mike Sullivan

Mike Sullivan

That’s exactly what we want. An administrator can ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent efficiently and effectively, and focus on the duties of office.

[…]

When she met with the editorial board, Democratic candidate Ann Harris Bennett, 62, had no difficulty listing the litany of problems she saw with the current incumbent tax assessor-collector. Brandon Dudley, however, listed the solutions. Dudley currently serves as chief of staff and general counsel for state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and that experience in the state Legislature is apparent. A graduate of the University of Houston Law Center with a background in social work, Dudley is a regular policy wonk. He is quick to point out the ways that wealthy commercial landowners can exploit loopholes in the property appraisal system, which shifts the tax burden onto average homeowners. Dudley, 42, has even reached out to other tax assessor-collectors across the state in search of innovative ideas and best practices for the office.

Bennett has run for this office once before, and she has a firm grasp of where it is today. Dudley has a vision for the future.

The Chron is far too kind to Sumners, who wasn’t just an overly political Tax Assessor, but also a massively incompetent Tax Assessor. I mean, any random third grader in HISD would do a better job than Sumners did in his two-year reign of error. To call this a no-brainer is to greatly understate the matter.

As for the Democratic side, my interview with Brandon Dudley is here and my interview with Ann Harris Bennett is here. One suspects that the Chron would be happy to endorse a random third grader over Don Sumners in November if he manages to win the GOP primary, but they will have a tougher choice if Mike Sullivan prevails. They did slap him on the wrist for not supporting online voter registration, so that may be the fulcrum on which their decision turns for the fall. But please, Republicans, don’t make it easy on them. You know as well as the rest of us what an idiot Sumners is. Let’s not take any chances that he could get his old job back.

Endorsement watch: Chron for Leticia

It’s amazing how easy some endorsement decisions are, or at least should be, this year.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

The differences between the candidates this year could hardly be more stark. State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, the Democratic candidate, is not only knowledgeable and experienced but also congenial and easy to work with. Her Republican opponent, state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston, is divisive, disruptive and self-aggrandizing.

We urge a vote for Van de Putte. Texas voters, regardless of party, need to think long and hard about a potential demagogue becoming lieutenant governor.

[…]

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who finished fourth in the March Republican primary for lieutenant governor, described his erstwhile opponent as an unsavory combination of Huey Long, Elmer Gantry and W. Lee “Pass the Biscuits Pappy” O’Daniel. Patterson said he would not vote for Patrick and told reporters that of the 31 members of the Senate, “very, very few of them have any trust in Sen. Patrick. Very few of them.”

Patrick, 64, is a formidable politician. He’s smart, he’s articulate and he knows the issues, but those attributes make him all the more dangerous in a leadership position.

Van de Putte, a moderate Democrat of Mexican descent, is a mother, grandmother and small-businesswoman. She was elected to the Texas House in 1990 and the Senate in 1999. The exact opposite of Patrick, the 59-year-old lawmaker has earned the respect of her colleagues in the majority-Republican Senate. They know she’ll work with them.

It’s a familiar litany, and I will be very surprised if all the other major papers don’t follow it as the Chron and the Caller have done. Despite his occasional attempts at bamboozlement, I doubt Dan Patrick himself would dispute the substance of these pieces. He is what he is and he knows it. The choice really couldn’t be any clearer.

Meanwhile, the Chron also made the obvious calls in the HCDE Trustee races.

County School Trustee, Position 5, At Large: Debra “Debby” Kerner

Our strong choice for this position is the Democratic incumbent Debra Kerner. Elected in 2008, Kerner is a career speech/language pathologist who brings a valuable perspective to this board, as she has spent her entire career working with special-needs children. She earned a masters degree from Columbia University and has been an instructor of speech pathology at University of Houston. She has also served as president of the Houston Association for Communication Disorders and a former vice president of the Texas Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Kerner, 65, is being challenged by Republican candidate Michael Wolfe, who currently works as Community Outreach Director for the Harris County District Clerk’s Office. Wolfe has previously served as an HCDE trustee, where he was censured for his frequent absences from meetings and failure to notify the board about his whereabouts for three months. He was also accused of threatening board members during an executive session. When the editorial board asked about his absences, Wolfe did not give a satisfactory reply. Showing up is important. Without any question, Kerner deserves another term.

County School Trustee, Position 7, At Large: Melissa Noriega

We encourage voters to go with Noriega. After working for nearly three decades in the Houston Independent School District, three terms as an at-large member of Houston City Council and a short stint as a Democratic state representative, Noriega, 60, understands where HCDE contributes to local schools and how to pull the levers of government. As she will be the first to admit, the job of bulk purchasing, record storage and specialty schools isn’t particularly sexy, but it is valuable.

It’s a highly qualified and well-respected incumbent Trustee and one of the better City Council members we’ve had in recent years against two of the biggest jokers to “serve” in Harris County government; Noriega’s opponent is former Tax Assessor Don Sumners, whose mess is still being cleaned up in that office. The stakes are a lot smaller, but as with Lite Guv, the choices couldn’t be clearer. My interview with Debby Kerner is here, and my interview with Melissa Noriega is here. Please don’t overlook these races at the bottom of your ballot.

Filing deadline today

Before I get into the details of who has or hasn’t filed for what, I have a bone to pick with this AP story.

Perhaps what the candidate filings reveal most is the relative strength and depth of the political parties in Texas. Four top Republicans are in a fierce battle for lieutenant governor, three for attorney general and five for agriculture commissioner.

Three Republicans are in the race for the Railroad Commission, an entry-level statewide office that gives the winner routine access to the state’s biggest campaign donors as well as the governor and attorney general. The only competition in the judicial races is for open seats vacated by Republican incumbents.

If a party can be judged by the number of people who want to lead it, Republicans certainly remain popular and thriving. Most of their statewide candidates have decades of experience winning elections.

Democrats have yet to field a complete slate of statewide candidates and have just one candidate each for lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller and land commissioner. The only potentially competitive race pits failed gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman against Jim Hogan for agriculture commissioner.

San Antonio Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the only Democrat running for lieutenant governor, was first elected to the Texas House in 1990 and to the Senate in 1999. She has the most campaign experience among Democratic candidates followed by Davis, who won her Senate seat in 2008. Freidman and attorney general candidate Sam Houston have run statewide offices before, but have never won.

That lack of experience and the shortage of candidates reveal the shallowness of the Democratic bench after 20 years out of power. There are young Democrats who have statewide potential, such as San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and his twin brother U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, but they’ve decided like some others to sit out the 2014 race, likely to let others test the waters before they take the plunge themselves.

I’ll stipulate that the Republican side of the ballot has more overall experience. For obvious reasons, it’s the only primary that features statewide officeholders. But to say “most of their statewide candidates have decades of experience winning elections” overstates things considerably. Outside of the Lt Governor’s race, most of their candidates are current or former legislators, and I submit that decades of winning a gerrymandered legislative district is hardly indicative of statewide potential.

To break it down a bit more scientifically, the GOP field for the non-Governor and Lt. Governor races are made up of the following:

Railroad Commissioner: One former State Rep and three people you’ve never heard of.
Land Commissioner: One scion of a political dynasty making his first run for office, and some other dude.
Ag Commissioner: Two former State Reps, the Mayor of a small town, and a state party functionary who lost a State Rep race in 2004.
Attorney General: A State Senator, a State Rep, and an appointed Railroad Commissioner that defeated a Libertarian in 2012 in the only election he’s run to date.
Comptroller: A State Senator, a State Rep, and a failed gubernatorial candidate.

Not exactly Murderer’s Row, is it? What they have first and foremost is the advantage of their party. That’s no small thing, of course, but it has nothing to do with anything any of them has done.

That said, most current statewide officeholders made the initial leap from legislative offices – Rick Perry and Susan Combs were State Reps before winning their first statewide elections, with Combs spending two years in Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s office in between; Todd Staples and Jerry Patterson were State Senators. Dems have plenty of legislators that would make fine candidates for state office – two of them are currently running – but it’s a lot harder to convince someone to give up a safe seat for what we would all acknowledge is an underdog bid for higher office. How much that changes in 2018, if at all, depends entirely on how well things go this year. If we have one or more breakthroughs, or even if we come reasonably close, you can bet there will be plenty of candidates with “decades of experience winning elections” next time.

Anyway. As we head into the last day of candidate filing, the local Democratic ballot is filling in nicely. Dems have at least one candidate for nineteen of the 24 State House seats in Harris County. Four are GOP-held seats – HDs 126, 127, 128, and 130 – and one is HD142, which is currently held by Rep. Harold Dutton. Either Rep. Dutton is just dithering until the last day, or he’s planning to retire and his preferred successor will file sometime late today. I guess we’ll find out soon enough. The two additions to the Democratic challenger ledger are Luis Lopez in HD132, who appears to be this person, and Fred Vernon in HD138, about whom I know nothing. Dems also now have two Congressional challengers, James Cargas in CD07 as expected, and Niko Letsos in CD02, about whom I know nothing.

By the way, for comparison purposes, the Harris County GOP is only contesting 14 of 24 State Rep seats. The three lucky Dems that have drawn challengers so far are Rep. Gene Wu in HD137, Rep. Hubert Vo in HD149 – we already knew about that one – and Rep. Jessica Farrar in HD148, who draws 2011 At Large #3 Council candidate Chris Carmona. I have to say, if they leave freshman Rep. Mary Ann Perez in HD144 unopposed, I would consider that an abject failure of recruitment if I were a Republican. Beyond that, the thing that piqued my interest was seeing the two worst recent officeholders – Michael Wolfe and Don Sumners – back on the ballot, as each is running for the two At Large HCDE Trustee offices. Putting aside their myriad and deep incompetencies while in office, the only possible reason these two clowns would be running for the HCDE is that they want to screw it up for the purpose of killing it off. As we know, Dems have Traci Jensen and Lily Leal running for one of those seats. Debra Kerner is the incumbent for the other seat and I believe she has filed but with petitions, so her status hasn’t been finalized yet. All I know is that we have enough chuckleheads in office already. We don’t need to put these two retreads back into positions of power.

Statewide, Texpatriate noted on Saturday that Dale Henry has filed to run for Railroad Commissioner, which will pit him against Steve Brown. Henry ran for this office as a Dem in 2006, 2008 (he lost in the primary to Mark Thompson), and 2010. Henry is a qualified candidate, but he’s a dinosaur in terms of campaign techniques and technologies. That might have been charming in 2006 or 2008, but it’s way out of place in 2014. All due respect to Dale Henry, but I’ll be voting for Steve Brown. We are still waiting to see how many statewide judicial candidates we’ll get. Word is we’ll have them, but who and how many remain unknown. Finally, between the Harris County primary filings email and the TDP filings page, I see that Dems have at least two candidates for the 14th Circuit Court of Appeals – Gordon Goodman for Place 7, and Kyle Carter, who was re-elected to the 125th Civil District Court in 2012, for Chief Justice. There are still slots on that court and on the 1st Court of Appeals, so I hope there are more of these to come. As always, if you are aware of other filings or rumors of filings, leave a comment and let us know.

Credit cards at the Tax Assessor’s office

If you’ve paid your vehicle registration fees in person at the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office, you’ve had to bring cash or check to do so, because they don’t accept credit cards for that. Thankfully, that’s about to change.

Mike Sullivan

Mike Sullivan

More than a decade after the office began accepting credit and debit cards for property tax payments, in person and online, the tax office is preparing to do the same for all things to do with motor vehicles, including registrations and renewals.

Within a month, all counters at the downtown tax office will accept plastic. All 17 locations should be plastic-friendly within three months, [Tax Assessor Mike] Sullivan said, describing the current situation as “horrible, horrible, horrible customer service.”

“It’s going to be a big roll-out when we are able to tell people we accept all forms of payment, bringing the office into the 21st century,” said Sullivan, who took office in January and promised that and other innovations during his campaign. “We’re several years behind where we should be.”

The move is part of a pilot program that will allow the county to input credit and debit card payments directly into the state system. Sullivan said it should reduce the office’s infamously long lines.

The tax assessor said he also plans to post an experienced employee at the front door of each of the five busiest locations to make sure people have all the necessary forms, notarizations and other items to complete their transactions.

While all Texas residents have been able to use credit and debit cards to renew their vehicle registrations online through the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles since 2001, those who visit the Harris County tax office in person have been able to use only cash or checks.

Some county tax offices already take plastic for motor vehicle fee payments in person, including in Dallas County, which first began allowing residents to use credit and debit cards for property and vehicle taxes more than two years ago, a spokesman said.

I pay my registration fees by mail so this hasn’t affected me personally, but as we know long lines at the Tax Assessor’s office is a problem that has needed solving, so kudos to Sullivan for taking this step. It’s a bit mind-boggling to think that in the year 2013 credit cards weren’t an option for something as basic as this – Harris County was one of the first counties to accept credit card payments for property taxes, after all. The state and the way it accepts payments from counties is partly responsible for this, but still. We’re two years behind Dallas. That’s embarrassing. Of course, given who our Tax Assessor was for those two years, it’s not terribly surprising. Consider it yet another reminder that elections do have consequences.

Anyway. Since as noted I do my payments by mail this doesn’t affect me, but it does make me wonder when those of us who pay this way will get the same service as well. It’s not a big deal from a time management perspective, but it would be nice to have the option to pay by credit card. Looking ahead, the next step would be online and mobile payments. Is someone working on an app to pay one’s vehicle registration fees? Surely we don’t want to hear that Dallas has beaten us again. Houston Politics has more.

Transition, schmansition

Don Sumners, ladies and gentlemen.

We won’t miss you, Don

“There is no transition,” said lame-duck Tax Assessor-Collector Don Sumners.

The occasionally cantankerous 73-year-old anti-tax taxman said he and his two predecessors came in cold, and [Tax Assessor-elect Mike] Sullivan will have to do the same.

“Frankly, I guess, it’s a little bit of bitterness on my part that he chose to run against me when really there wasn’t anything that I had done that would justify an opponent from my own party, and that he chose to, in effect, buy his way in with the slate votes,” Sumners said, referring to endorsements Sullivan received after contributing to prominent conservatives’ groups or advertising in their newsletters. “I just don’t feel like I owe him anything. He’s not qualified, he shouldn’t have run, so he’s just going to have to work it out when he gets here.

“I just decided to be uncooperative, I guess,” Sumners continued. “I was, quote, pissed.”

Sumners is the embodiment of the philosophy that says just because you’re getting older doesn’t mean you have to act like a grownup. I don’t need to note Sumners’ many, many screwups as Tax Assessor to point out how ridiculous he sounds here, do I? I don’t know how much actual transition is needed for a job like this, but it shouldn’t matter. We expect elected officials to not act like spoiled children, even after losing an election. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, Don.

Sumners for Controller?

Yeah, I don’t know about that.

County tax assessor-collector Don Sumners, who lost his bid for re-election in the May GOP primary, said Wednesday he is considering running for city controller next year.

“The part that has to be decided is whether I can actually win. I’m not a spring chicken,” said Sumners, 73.

Controller Ronald Green did not draw an opponent for re-election in 2011. He is eligible to run for a third and final two-year term in 2013.

For whatever the reason, incumbent City Controllers have been unopposed for re-election in recent cycles. The last sitting Controller to have an opponent was Lloyd Kelley, who was ousted by Sylvia Garcia in 1997. Since then – Garcia in 1999 and 2001; Annise Parker in 2005 and 2007; Green in 2011 – Controllers have gotten free rides after their initial elections. Sumners ran for Controller once before, in 1993, drawing less than 10% of the vote as one of three unsuccessful challengers to George Greanias. Green had some bad press earlier this year, but he can’t hold a candle to Sumners on that score. Plus, not to put too fine a point on it, this is a heavily Democratic city. I’ll have more on this on Monday, but as was the case in 2008 the city of Houston voted over 60% for President Obama. Obviously, the electorate is very different in an odd-numbered year, but the point is that someone like Sumners has a much lower ceiling than Ronald Green has. So let’s just say I don’t think Green will lose any sleep over this.

Endorsement watch: Martin and Sullivan

The Chron can’t quite believe that Steve Stockman is on the verge of being foisted on us again as a member of Congress, so they do what they can by endorsing his opponent, Max Martin.

Max Martin

Max Martin is a credible, if long-shot, candidate. Martin, a retired pilot who now owns an education software business in Clear Lake, is our endorsement choice over the stealth candidate Stockman to represent this economically diverse district. Martin is an old-school Texas Democrat, whose moderate, pro-business views should have appeal to many Republicans in the district, which includes refineries, Gulf fisheries, ranches and timbering operations. Constituents include blue-collar workers, small business owners and a growing number of retirees from out of state.

Martin, who came to live in southeast Houston with his family in 1955, has an admirable history as a self-starter. He also possesses an encyclopedic geographic knowledge of the area from his many years as a short-haul pilot for private businesses and Metro Airlines. In every sense he presents himself as someone truly representative of this district. By contrast, Stockman strikes us as a political opportunist whose out-of-the-mainstream views would not serve District 36 residents well.

We recommend a vote for Max Martin to represent Texas House District 36.

Martin had previously collected the endorsement of the Beaumont Enterprise as well. Sadly, CD36 was drawn to be heavily Republican, and even with the financial resources to mount the kind of campaign needed to alert people to what a whackjob Stockman is, it would be an uphill climb. And with the likes of Louie Gohmert in Congress these days, Stockman doesn’t even stand out as particularly crazy anymore.

Elsewhere, the Chron writes the last of the endorsement editorials for candidates listed on their master list by recommending Mike Sullivan for Harris County Tax Assessor.

Mike Sullivan

Over the past 15 years or so, the office of Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector has been deliberately but needlessly politicized. It shouldn’t have been – and we’re confident it won’t be again if county voters elect Mike Sullivan in the Nov. 6 election.

Sullivan, the current Houston City Council member and former trustee of the Humble Independent School District board, has built a reputation as a straight shooter with facts and public finances. That is precisely what is required of a tax assessor-collector.

The assessor-collector’s office is where residents and taxpayers go, often online, to register their vehicles, pay their property taxes and register to vote.

It is, by definition, a service department, not a roost for partisans, whether Republican or Democrat, to spread their views on political issues.

The reason is clear: The constitutionally ordained duty of voter registration does not mix well – or at all – with politicking.

Perhaps it is churlish of me to point this out, but “over the past 15 years or so”, the office of Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector has been exclusively held by Republicans. Paul Bettencourt won a special election in 1998 to replace Carl Smith after he passed away earlier that year, and after him came Leo Vasquez and now Don Sumners. Maybe, just maybe, that might have had something to do with the problem that the Chron so astutely identifies, and if so maybe electing another Republican isn’t the optimal solution to it. I’m just saying. Sullivan, to his credit, says the right things about focusing on the clerical aspects of the job. If he is elected, I sure hope he lives up to that. But I still think that a real change is needed here, and to that effect I’ll be voting for Ann Harris Bennett. By the way, in case you missed it, here’s the Chron overview story of this race – there’s a Libertarian candidate as well – which appeared in the print edition a week ago but which I couldn’t find online until a few days after that.

LULAC files suit against Tax Assessor over voter registrations

Texas Redistricting has the press release.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Today, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and a number of Houston residentsfiled suit against Harris County in Federal District Court for the Southern District of Texas maintaining that Harris County officials wrongly rejected voter applications through discriminatory practices against Latino and African American applicants. Representing LULAC and the residents who filed suit are attorneys from the Campaign Legal Center, Project Vote, and Chad Dunn of Brazil & Dunn.

Among other things, LULAC filed the suit in an attempt to stop the discriminatory purging of registered Latino and Black voters in Harris County. In the petition, LULAC asserts the following claims:

  • The changes in voting procedures by Harris County have not been pre-cleared by the United States Department of Justice or by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. These actions are “standards, practices and procedures” subject to the preclearance requirements of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1973c.
  • Harris County has disproportionate higher percentage rates of rejected voter registration applications from minority citizens than from Anglo citizens resulting in discrimination against African-Americans and Latino citizens which is in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 1973.
  • Harris County’s voter purge program was based on faulty death matches and is in violation of Section 8(b)(1) of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (“NVRA”), 42 U.S.C. § 1973gg-6(b)(I), which provides that any state or local program or activity designed to ensure the maintenance of accurate and current voter registration rolls “shall be uniform, nondiscriminatory, and in compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
  • Harris County acted with racially discriminatory intent in denying the right to vote of African-American persons in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
  • Harris County deprived a fundamental right to vote protected under the United States Constitution and the First Amendment.

“Harris County has used discriminatory practices in purging otherwise qualified voters and citing minor technicalities for rejecting their registration applications,” said LULAC National President Margaret Moran. “We filed the suit in order to stop these discriminatory practices. Our singular goal is to make sure that all qualified individuals have the opportunity to exercise their Constitutional protected right to vote in this year’s election.”

“Harris County has a lengthy and sad history of voter discrimination and regrettably the only way to bring it into compliance with the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution has been through court orders,” said J. Gerald Hebert, Campaign Legal Center Executive Director. “We hope this complaint will once again serve to bring the county into compliance with federal law and safeguard the rights of Latino and African American citizens.”

“Once again, Harris County zealously seeks to exclude people of color from the electoral process, thumbing its nose at federal statutes, the U.S. Constitution and the quintessentially American belief in one person one vote,” said Catherine M. Flanagan, Director of Election Administration for Project Vote.

The lawsuit is here, and a press release from Don Sumners is here. As you might imagine, he’s not terribly impressed. His main argument in his reply is that LULAC’s suit is mostly a rehash of the 2008 TDP lawsuit that led to a settlement in which the Tax Assessor’s office agreed that they would not automatically reject a voter application where the residence address given was determined to be a commercial address. LULAC claims they are not honoring that agreement, Sumners denies their claim. I have no reason to trust Sumners, so we’ll see what a judge has to say. The Chron story is here, and Stace has more.

Settlement reached in “dead voter” lawsuit

It’s something.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A lawsuit by four registered voters alleging that the state of Texas was violating their civil rights by purging them from voter rolls has been dropped after the plaintiffs and the state reached an agreement.

The Texas residents brought the suit after receiving letters from their county registrar indicating that the office had reason to believe the voters were dead. Elections officials stated the voters would be dropped from the voter rolls if they did not respond to a letter asking them to prove they were alive within 30 days.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs won an injunction last month to stop the process after tens of thousands of letters were sent out, including many to voters who were still alive. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott sought to have the restraining order dissolved, however, and a hearing was scheduled for this week on the matter. After Wednesday’s agreement, however, the plaintiffs agreed to drop the suit after the state agreed that it would not purge voters if they failed to respond within the allotted time frame.

“The confusion arose because some 68,000 notices of ‘potential deceased’ voters were sent out to county voter registrars based on ‘weak’ information that some of them might be dead,” plaintiffs’’ attorney Randall “Buck” Wood said in a news release. “All sorts of voters were mailed out a demand to respond to these notices within 30 days or be purged from the voter rolls right before the election.”

The two sides agreed that instead, the plaintiffs would not object to the purging of voters whom the secretary of state or local registrars could confirm were dead, and the secretary of state’s office sent out a revised instructional statement to county elections administrators.

“Voter registrars are expected to conduct an independent review of ‘weak’ matches to determine whether a voter is appropriately on the voter rolls,” Keith Ingram, the director of the state’s elections division, wrote in the revised statement. “Records of potentially deceased voters should be reviewed as quickly as possible once information is received by a Voter Registrar indicating the voter may be deceased.”

See here for more on the lawsuit. Maybe if the Secretary of State had done a better job informing election administrators and voter registrars what they were supposed to do with the data they got all this unpleasantness could have been avoided. It just boggles my mind at how much more effort we put into making it harder to vote than we do making it easier.

While there were many thousands of voters around the state who got these “prove you’re not dead” letters, I wonder how much attention this would have gotten had it not been for the spectacular snafu in Harris County. The Chron took a closer look at the recipients of those letters here, and guess what they found? Go on, guess.

Voters in traditionally African-American neighborhoods were disproportionately affected when Harris County officials notified 9,000 people their registrations could be cancelled unless they proved they were not deceased, according to a Chronicle analysis of data obtained from the Texas Secretary of State.

Already, 32 percent of voters who received “Are you dead?” letters across the county in September – just six weeks before the presidential elections – have confirmed they are very much alive, election officials said this week. Because of widespread complaints, no county voters will be purged before the November elections unless their deaths are independently confirmed, according to Don Sumners, the county’s tax assessor collector and voter registrar.

The Chronicle’s analysis showed that voters living in African-American districts – specifically created by lawmakers to enhance political representation of blacks on the county commission and the Texas Legislature – received more letters than voters in other districts. Nearly 2,900 live in Harris County Commissioner’s Precinct 1 – a minority opportunity district created more than two decades ago that includes most of the county’s historically black neighborhoods.

You can consider that a coincidence if you want. In a year where the state of Texas has twice been found by a federal court to have systematically discriminated against minority voters, it’s more than a bit of a stretch. Whatever the case, I’m sure it felt like the same old story to a lot of these folks. I’m just glad it got stopped.

“Dead voter” purge finally laid to rest

Our long countywide nightmare is finally over.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The running dispute over presumed-dead voters on Harris County rolls was substantially resolved Wednesday between the Texas Secretary of State’s office and Harris County’s tax registrar just hours before a Travis County judge issued an order that temporarily prevents the removal of names from registration lists statewide.

[…]

Sumners called a news conference Wednesday afternoon to present his position.

He said he didn’t know there were two lists and that “someone” in his office decided to send letters to those on the longer one without his knowledge.

“I obviously don’t personally handle everything,” he said. “Yes, it is my responsibility, but it wasn’t my personal mistake.”

Sumners said he’s prepared to take legal action against the secretary of state over her office’s interpretation and implementation of state law regarding voter purges.

“The secretary of state is supposed to say: ‘This is a dead person. Take ’em off.’ But that’s not what they did,” he said, beating the podium. “They sent us a roll that said: ‘This may be a dead person.’ ”

He added that he hesitated to purge unconfirmed dead people to avoid eligible voters showing up to the polls and having to cast provisional ballots.

“We will have a good, tight voter roll,” he said of the estimated 1.9 million registered voters in Harris County. “I don’t think we are going to have dead people voting.”

I’ve been hard on Don Sumners for a lot of things, and he’s generally deserved it. Here again, he demonstrates that this office was not a good fit for him. Just way too many high-profile screwups, and to blame this one on “someone” in his office is not acceptable. He’s in charge, he owns it. It’s a good thing his days as Tax Assessor are drawing to a close. Having said all that, I do respect him for his advocacy of the basic principle that all eligible voters should be allowed to vote. It would have been very easy for him to purge away and let it be the voters’ responsibility to fix it. We wouldn’t be in this situation if he were a competent office manager, but at least he did his best to contain the damage. Enjoy your retirement in January, Don.

The story mentions in the first paragraph a lawsuit related to this mess, then never gives any information about it. A little Google searching led me to this.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed yesterday by four Texas voters who were told they would be purged from voter- registration lists as deceased. They asked state court Judge Tim Sulak in Austin to stop the state from striking about 77,000 names from the rolls, arguing the plan violates the Texas election code and the U.S. Voting Rights Act.

The secretary of state is “restrained from further instructing the counties to remove any other names from the voter rolls,” Sulak said in his order. “Plaintiffs are entitled to temporary injunctive relief.”

Lawyers for the voters contended the state was required to get pre-approval for rules changes under the federal Voting Rights Act. The law mandates that Texas and other jurisdictions subject to the act get pre-clearance from the U.S. Justice Department or a special three-judge panel to alter electoral procedures.

“There is no statutory authority for this purge,” civil rights lawyer David Richards, who represents the plaintiffs, said in a phone interview while waiting for the judge to rule.

[…]

Opponents of the Texas purge are most concerned by efforts to remove voters who are weak matches to the master death list, Buck Wood, a lawyer for the voters suing in Austin, said after yesterday’s hearing.

When all nine Social Security numbers, the last name and birth date are the same on the two lists, that is considered a strong match, Wood said. Comparing only a birth date and the last four digits of a Social Security number would make for a weak match, he said.

When voters get these notices, they ask, “What the hell is going on?” Wood said.

Erika Kane, a lawyer with the Texas Attorney General’s office, asked the judge if the state would have to retract prior e-mails.

“How do we address this concern without causing mass confusion to the public?” she asked.

“I’m not telling you to pull down what’s already gone out,” Kulak said. He said he would order there be no further instruction to pull voters from the rolls based on weak matches.

He also barred the secretary of state from ordering county officials to remove from the rolls any voters who failed to “timely comply” with the notices sent out based on non- responses to weak matches.

The case is Moore v. Morton, D-1-6N-12-002923, District Court, Travis County, Texas (Austin).

That weak match really is weak. Last four digits of the SSN plus birth date? No wonder there was such a high false positive rate. Perhaps some clearer instructions from the SOS in the future about how to appropriately use these lists would help avoid any repeats of this little drama.

Deal reached to restore SOS funding for Tax Assessor

This whole protracted standoff between Harris County Tax Assessor Don Sumners and the Secretary of State over the “dead voter” purge has apparently been the result of a misunderstanding.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett has brokered a deal with the Texas secretary of state to restore about $700,000 in funding the state had cut off after the county tax assessor said he would not purge presumed-dead voters from the rolls before the Nov. 6 election.

[…]

Emmett blamed Sumners for the mix-up, revealing the tax office had been sent two lists by the secretary of state, but only acted on one. One list included 9,000 names the state considered “weak” matches to death records. The second list was composed of about 1,000 names considered “strong” matches to death records.

Sumners’ office only sent letters to voters on the “weak” list. Sumners, who serves as the county’s chief voter registrar, acknowledged his office erred, believing until late last week that the 1,000 names on the “strong” list were among the 9,000 on the other list.

Emmett’s deal is based on the “strong” list. The secretary of state has agreed to restore Sumners’ funding if the taxman sends letters to the names on the strong list, canceling those whose relatives confirm they are dead and removing from the voter rolls those for whom there is no response after 30 days, Parsons said.

On the weak matches, Parsons said, Sumners simply needs to cancel registrations of voters who are confirmed dead, as Sumners said he already has been doing. Sumners then could handle those who do not respond from the weak list “as he determines necessary for the county,” Parsons said.

“We’re trying to make this work so that the secretary of state sends us the money, everybody who has the right to vote gets to vote, and people who are deceased get removed from the rolls,” Emmett said. “This is just a mess.”

See here, here, and here for the history. After all this, to find out that the root cause was another screwup by Sumners…I’m just shaking my head. That “weak match” list, by the way, was pretty darned weak: According to the story, as of Friday over 10% of the recipients of that “please prove to us you’re not dead” letter had responded to affirm their not-deadness, including State Rep. Wayne Smith, while less than one percent had been confirmed to actually be dead. I will just say again, this is why these things need to be done very carefully. Kudos to Judge Emmett for getting to the bottom of this.

SOS ups the ante against Sumners

It’s getting real at the Tax Assessor’s office.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Harris County election officials got a bit of a surprise Friday morning when they attempted to open the county’s spending account on the Texas Secretary of State’s office website and found their access blocked. State officials have temporarily cut off the county’s voter registration funding.

“We received verification from (state election division Director) Keith Ingram that funding was being held up,” said Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Don Sumners.

Secretary of State spokesman Rich Parsons said state officials halted funding Tuesday after learning that Sumners refused to purge deceased voters from the voter rolls as required by federal and state law.

[…]

Sumners’ office collected about $711,000 in fiscal 2010 and about $66,000 in 2011. It has received about $31,000 of an expected $732,404 so far this year, Parsons said.

The spending account on the state agency’s website enables registrars to track voter registration funding expenditures and to submit reimbursement claims.

Sumners said the county needs the money to pay $7,500 in weekly wages to 18 temporary workers and to cover other costs.

“It will have a pretty dramatic effect on ability to process the work we need to do and other documents we need to complete to produce voter roll for the November election,” he said.

Sumners is not the only county official pushing back on this.

Dallas County Elections Administrator Toni Pippins-Poole said Wednesday that her office does not have sufficient staff or time to check out all names on a list sent out last week by the secretary of state indicating that some area voters may be deceased.

The secretary of state, acting under a 2011 law enacted by the Legislature, notified county officials across the state that nearly 77,000 voters may be dead and should be checked out locally to determine if they should be struck from voter rolls. About 9,000 voters in Dallas County were identified.

Pippins-Poole said it’s too close to the election to act, and doing so could jeopardize some citizens’ right to vote.

“We absolutely intend to comply with the law, but we need enough time to process these reviews,” she said. “Until we hear something different, we believe this is the best way to handle this.”

The secretary of state’s office compared current voter rolls with a master list of deceased or potentially deceased Texans compiled by the Social Security Administration. After its review, the state compiled a list of voters who had a “strong match” between the two lists and those who had a “weak match.”

Pippins-Poole said that of the 9,000 names from Dallas County, only 830 were found to have a strong match. All of those residents are being sent letters asking them to respond if they are alive and still registered to vote — but they will not have to do so until after the Nov. 6 election. A strong match means the same last name, birth date and full Social Security number on both lists.

As for the other voters who were identified by the state based on weak matches — the same last name and last four digits of the Social Security number — Pippins-Poole said her office will not pursue additional verification.

Far as I can tell, the SOS has not taken any action against Dallas County as of yet. As for Harris County, there may be a lawsuit on the horizon:

[County Attorney Vince] Ryan responded to Ingram’s letter Wednesday. He said that his office reviewed Sumners’ and the county’s actions and was confident that neither had violated federal or state law.

“The letter did not cite any specific statute or rule that was allegedly violated nor does it state any basis for denial of funds under (Texas Election Code) 18.064,” Ryan wrote.

He also threatened to sue the state if it attempts “to withhold funds without a proper legal basis.”

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to hear how Greg Abbott justifies the use of a filthy federal database to force elections administrators in the State of Texas to do something they don’t think is right.

SOS versus Sumners

It’s not a steel cage death match, but it’ll do.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a strongly worded letter today, the Texas Secretary of State’s office told Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar Don Sumners that his decision not to purge presumed-dead voters from the rolls before the Nov. 6 election likely violates the law and compromises the “integrity” of the Nov. 6 election.

[…]

“As director of the elections division, it is my duty to inform you that your actions likely constitute violations of both state and federal laws and put the integrity of Harris County and the State’s voter registration lists as well as the integrity of the November 6 General Election in jeopardy,” Keith Ingram wrote to Sumners. “As always, my door is open to assist you with any difficulties you have in carrying out your duties as voter registrar, or if you are unable to fulfill those duties. Should you be unwilling to fulfill your duties, this office will then evaluate what options to take on behalf of the citizens of Harris County.”

Ingram also noted that Sumners’ failure to comply with state requirements “means that the registrar is not entitled to receive voter registration funds distributed by the Secretary of State’s office.”

Assistant County Attorney Doug Ray took strong issue with the state’s letter.

“They didn’t actually specify how he’s violating the law. He sent out the letters they asked him to send out. He’s just saying that, based on the reaction he’s getting, he can’t consider the information that they sent to him reliable, which is certainly within his discretion to do,” Ray said. “If they would spend as much time getting people who are qualified on to the voter registration list as they’re spending trying to get unqualified people off, we’d all be a lot better off.”

Ray’s boss, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, yesterday said he believes the Secretary of State’s office violated the law in the way it implemented this voter purge. Ryan also released a legal memorandum stating the reasoning behind his position.

One key in his argument is that the law says “If the secretary (of state) determines that a voter on the registration list is deceased, the secretary shall send notice of the determination to the voter registrar of the counties.” Ryan says the state never made any “determination” about the life or death of the people on the list it sent to the county.

The Secretary of State’s office disagrees with Ryan’s reading of the law, saying an accompanying passage that was part of House Bill 174 (the law that required the use of this Social Security data in the first place) requires no such “determination” and supersedes the passage Ryan cites.

Any lawyers want to weigh in on this? I’m still wrapping my mind around Sumners being the good guy in all this. If I were Sean Pendergast I could probably find some pro wrestling analogy to encapsulate this, but I’m afraid I wasted my youth on other things. We’ll see how it goes from here.

UPDATE: A nice bit of snarkery related by Patricia Kilday Hart:

Spring retiree David Smith, who received one of Sumners’ notices, wondered if the whole effort wasn’t a case of voter fraud. After all, we’ve been there’s an epidemic of it going around.

Smith responded to his own death notice from Sumners with the appropriate Twain-ism:

“As Mark Twain would have it ‘Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. … A little research should have convinced you, in short order, that I am, in fact, still able to fog a mirror.”

Smith also contacted Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has vigorously defended our state’s new Voter ID effort.

Wrote Smith: “Someone apparently, has reported my death to Harris County in order, presumably, to disenfranchise me. I would request that your office execute a thorough investigation and, if appropriate, prosecute the perpetrator or perpetrators to the full extent allowed by law and with the same vigor as you have defended the proposed Texas Voter ID law before the Courts of the United States.”

I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

Not dead yet

As they say, reports of their deaths have been greatly exaggerated.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Don Sumners said Monday that he would not purge from the voter roll before the November election any of the 9,018 citizens who received letters from his office in recent days notifying them that they may be dead and are at risk of having their registrations canceled.

However, a spokesman for the Texas secretary of state, the office that generated the statewide list of about 80,000 voters, said Sumners’ move contradicts legislative directives.

“Our office has federal and state requirements to maintain an accurate and secure voter registration list. If any of those people are deceased, the law requires that they be removed from the voter registration list ,” Rich Parsons said. “Mr. Sumners’ decision would prevent that.”

The letters, many of which were delivered Friday and Saturday, asked recipients to verify within 30 days that they are alive or be cut from the roll.

Sumners, who also is the county’s voter registrar, said conversations with the Secretary of State’s Office convinced him the list of possible dead was too unreliable to act on until after the Nov. 6 election.

“We’re not even going to process any of the cancellations until after the election,” Sumners said. “Because we’ve gotten such a response from people that say that they are still alive.”

[…]

House Bill 174, passed last year, required the secretary of state to purge possibly dead voters quarterly using data from the Social Security Administration, Parsons said; the office long has used similar data from the Bureau of Vital Statistics.

“The process is nothing new,” he said. “What’s new is the use of the Social Security Administration’s death master file. The Social Security Administration, as I understand it, had made clear to our office that they don’t guarantee or provide any assurance of the accuracy of their list.”

The Secretary of State’s Office and local tax offices regularly purge dead voters from the rolls, based on information from several sources. In some cases, the voter’s birth date, name, or other identifying data is considered a strong enough match to death records to remove the voter from the roll automatically; when the match is weaker, the voter is sent a letter giving him an opportunity to prove he is alive. Last week’s batch mailing was unusually large, local and state officials said.

Perhaps the problem was with HB174, which passed with bipartisan support despite these issues. As with the voter registration restrictions that are being litigated, this bill got very little attention as it was being debated. State Sen. Rodney Ellis has some questions for the SOS about this that deserve answers. I just wish some of these questions had been brought up last year. We’ve discussed the challenges of registration purges before. This is another example of why they should be undertaken with extreme caution to add to the pile. I don’t say this very often, but kudos to Don Sumners for doing the right thing. I hope other county voter registrars follow his example if they have similar doubts.

I can’t be the only one who read this story and thought of this, can I?

You’re not fooling anyone, you know.

HCDE election lawsuit dismissed

The lineup for the fall elections is now officially set.

Erica Lee

The disputed election results for the trustee runoff between two Democratic candidates will stand after a federal judge on Thursday dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Harris County Department of Education after a flawed primary in May.

U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal released a 16-page opinion dismissing the suit against Harris County, Tax Assessor-Collector and voter registrar Don Sumners and Harris County Clerk and chief elections officer Stan Stanart seeking to scrap the results because of a flawed May primary filed by the department of education in June.

Sumners has acknowledged his office used outdated boundary information, making some ballots incorrect in two races. The judge ruled Thursday that the suit failed to show irreparable harm by the use of the incorrect boundary lines.

The suit had asked for a special election for two board seats on Nov. 6, in conjunction with the general election. The judge’s ruling said modifying the election will “disserve the public interest.” Candidates would have had to re-file, and Democrats and Republicans would be on the same ballot, pitting three Democrats and one Republican against each other. County attorneys, the Democratic and Republican parties and Democratic candidate Erica S. Lee filed motions to dismiss the suit in July.

[…]

Jarvis Johnson

The Position 6 trustee runoff election between Lee and former Houston city councilman Jarvis Johnson was the main focus of the lawsuit. The other flawed primary between Republicans for Position 4 was unaffected by the incorrect boundaries because the two candidates were separated by 21,000 votes and fewer than 1,500 voters were affected by the error.

Johnson argued he could have been the clear-cut winner after he received 49.5 percent of the vote to Lee’s 40.6 percent in May had there not been an error. Lee won the runoff with 75 percent of the vote.

Johnson called the judge’s ruling a “travesty of justice” for the voters and the candidates.

“They are just trying to push this thing through without having justice served,” he said. “I think this does set a bad precedent, the worst precedent of all. Mistakes can be made in the system and the only thing we are going to do is sweep it under the rug.”

See here, here, and here for background. Johnson could have won it outright in May if the boundaries had been correct, but he’d have needed to do very well in the omitted precincts for that to have happened. There were no good answers to this mess, but this one does have the benefit of leaving the November election as is. I suppose Johnson could pursue his own litigation, which could subsequently overturn this result and force the special election we could have had this time, but I’ll worry about that when and if it comes to pass. For now I’m just glad we have all the litigation behind us.

On a side note, I did not see a headline on the front page of the redesigned Chron.com for this story, nor did I see a headline for it in the Houston/Texas section. I saw it in the print edition, and then searched the archives for it. Color me not impressed.

Chron smacks Stanart and Sumners

Ouch.

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart is bad at his job.

Specifically, Stanart has performed poorly as chief election officer in his duty to responsibly and effectively administer elections for Harris County.

[…]

Stanart said that the delayed results were due to faulty phone lines that could not be tested until Election Day. This excuse, however, doesn’t explain why results were similarly late in the first round of runoffs back in May, including delayed processing of mail-in ballots. Nor does it explain why he published an inaccurate manual for election judges during the November 2011 election.

Going by this pattern, we’re not looking forward to Stanart’s handling of the presidential election.

But Stanart is not the only elected official in Harris County who has done a poor job running our elections. Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar Don Sumners used outdated district boundary information when distributing election ballots for the May primaries. This mistake prevented some valid voters from participating in the Democratic Party primary for Harris County Board of Education, Position 6, while also allowing some people to vote in that race who shouldn’t have. Now Harris County, Sumners and Stanart face a lawsuit from the Harris County Department of Education.

At a time when people around the country support strict voter ID laws against the real or imagined specter of mass voter fraud, or oppose it to prevent threatened disenfranchisement, incompetence in our county government has brought the integrity of our local elections into question.

Stanart and Sumners are of course two of the bigger proponents of the “mass voter fraud” hallucination. The Chron doesn’t often call out officials this starkly, so it was quite bracing to read. Interestingly, they did not bring up the idea of an elections administrator as a potential solution to these problems. I’m still waiting to see if Judge Emmett will try to put it back on the table or not. I suspect we are unlikely to hear about this again until after November. Coby has more.

Is it time for an election administrator?

Campos revives an old topic.

I think it is way past time to get an Election Administrator over at the County and take running the elections out of the hands of the ideologues and partisans. [County Judge Ed Emmett] and the County Commissioners need to do right and hand this function solely over to the professionals. The delays and the confusions from night before last and the major league screw-ups over the [HCDE] boundaries warrants a shift in who should be conducting elections in Harris County. Amateurism and Keystone Cops style handling of our precious votes is unacceptable.

[…]

It also takes way too long for the County to report results. The County Clerk explained to the Chron that Reliant (a County owned facility BTW) had provided them with “garbage” phone lines. When did they discover this? It would seem like they would have run checks on the equipment earlier in the day to make sure all systems were working. They apparently didn’t.

Running the elections, voter registration, and the drawing of precinct lines ought to be the function of one office – period – and this office should be run by a dedicated professional.

Here is what is also bothersome about the other night.

Some folks like the Constable Pct. 1 Zerick Guinn campaign supporters probably went home and to bed thinking that their 787 vote lead would hold up with just 6 precincts out. Two hours and 31 minutes later the County posted the final and “corrected” cumulative reports. Why didn’t they bother to send out a press release or notice out at the time to alert folks of the error since an outcome of a race was severely altered? Commentary isn’t a member of the press but I and others get frequent updates from the elections folks. Why didn’t they let us know? Was it cowardice?

It wasn’t until yesterday morning that some of us noticed the error and began to ask questions. By not immediately putting out a statement explaining the error, the folks running the election were not forthcoming. That’s the wrong message folks running the elections want to send to the public.

[Emmett] needs to step in and show leadership. Elections are the way too important for sloppiness, screw-ups, and passing the buck.

Judge Emmett first brought up the idea of an appointed Elections Administrator for Harris County in May of 2010. It was approved for study in June, was briefly mentioned in September, then fell off the radar after the election. I have no idea where this idea stands now, and as much of a pooch-screw as Tuesday’s election was, I remain at least somewhat skeptical of the idea. Nonetheless, it’s hard to see what the merits are of the current situation at this point. For sure, if there were ever a time to bring the idea up again, this is it.

No settlement deal for HCDE election screwup

Just as well, because this wasn’t a good deal.

A proposed settlement hashed out Thursday evening would have seen the Republican race – a blowout victory – stand, and the Democratic race – for which a runoff is under way – voided. In that race, the November ballot would list all three Democrats and the one Republican who filed for the Position 6 trustee seat. The leading vote-getter would win the seat.

“I am wholeheartedly in disagreement,” Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Lane Lewis said Friday. “If you’ve got the Democrats splitting their votes three ways and the Republicans only have one person to vote for, I don’t see how mathematically it would be possible for a Democrat to win.”

Lewis said if an unfair agreement is presented to the court, his party would be forced to intervene and file an injunction to block the settlement.

First Assistant County Attorney Terry O’Rourke said that proposal was outdated, adding that Lewis’ party will have to agree to any settlement. The goal, O’Rourke said, is to present a settlement to Commissioners Court for approval Monday morning, then take the document into court Monday afternoon. A judge could reject all or part of any agreement, he noted.

While I understand HCDP Chair Lewis’ concern, the split among the three candidates in May was 49.5 – 40.5 – 10, so it seems unlikely to me that there would be an even three-way split among them in a hypothetical November special election. Even if there were, Precinct 1 is Democratic enough that one of them might still prevail over the Republican candidate. But regardless of that, under this proposal we could be electing someone to a six-year office with no resign-to-run requirement and taxing authority with less than 30% of the vote. That ain’t right no matter who it is. I get that the county wants to avoid the expense of a separate election or runoff for just this race, but that’s too bad. We shouldn’t short-circuit democracy to save a few bucks. A solution I could live with is this: Hold the voting Tuesday under the correct lines (if the eSlates can all be programmed correctly by then) so that all of the in person votes and most of the absentee votes are correct, then see if the margin between winner and loser exceeds the total number of misplaced absentee ballots. If so, let the result stand; if not, proceed to a November special election and bite the bullet on a December runoff, just as you would for any other November special election like the SD17 special election in 2008. It’s the best we can do, and it might survive a subsequent lawsuit by whoever loses on Tuesday. If you’ve got a better idea, leave it in the comments.

HCDE sues for new election

From the inbox:

The Harris County Department of Education (HCDE) today filed suit in federal court seeking new elections for Trustees whose district boundaries were wrong in the May 29th primary.

HCDE officials learned earlier this week that outdated boundaries were used in the primary election for Trustees in Positions 4 and 6. The boundaries should have been updated to match the new boundaries for county commissioners drawn by a federal court for the 2012 election. Thousands of registered voters were affected by this error—many people voted who were not supposed to vote in that particular Trustee race and many people were not afforded the opportunity to vote in the correct Trustee race.

The lawsuit filed by HCDE against the county today maintains that using the wrong boundaries in these elections violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees “one person, one vote.” HCDE is seeking a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief requiring that:

  • Harris County be enjoined from proceeding with the general election for HCDE Trustees based on the primary and run-off elections with incorrect boundaries;
  • the May 29 primary results be declared void for Trustee Positions 4 and 6, along with the Democratic run-off election scheduled July 31 for Trustee Position 6;
  • a special election for Trustee Positions 4 and 6 be held in conjunction with the November 6 general election;
  • filing for those seats be re-opened and that all candidates, whether Democrat or Republican, run in one race for each Trustee position using the correct boundaries;
  • Harris County be ordered to seek pre-clearance from the U.S. Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act; and
  • a schedule be ordered for the November 6 special election regarding filing and other deadlines.

The HCDE Board of Trustees in an emergency meeting July 17 authorized Board President Angie Chesnut and Superintendent Dr. John E. Sawyer to initiate legal proceedings on this issue. Early voting for the Democratic run-off for Position 6 begins Monday; mail ballots have already been distributed and returned for that race. It is too late to remove the candidates’ names from the ballot — HCDE is asking that the votes that are cast in that race not be counted.

In principle, the result in the Position 4 GOP primary race should be voided and the special election held as requested, but as a practical matter I would understand the judge letting that result be. The winner had 75% of the total and a 21,000 vote margin, nearly ten times as large as the number of misplaced votes. I’m not saying that this is how the judge should rule, just that you can make a good case for it.

Assuming that the judge does void one or both May primaries, it’s reasonable to assume that the ensuing special election will result in at least one runoff. If so, I’d like to make a motion that the cost of holding that runoff be billed to Don Sumners. The more I think about this screwup, the more egregious it appears to be. I mean, given that HCDE precincts correspond exactly to Commissioners Court precincts, from a system perspective the table in the master database of precinct information should define the “HCDE precincts” table as a straight copy of the “Commissioners Court precincts” table. There shouldn’t be any room for human error, it should be defined and controlled programatically, and there should have been a sanity check in place to make sure the records were in fact identical. This isn’t rocket science, but it is apparently too much for Don Sumners. Oh, and then there’s the fact that the error was just noticed now, after absentee ballots that still contained the incorrect 2001 precinct information had been mailed out. Heck of a job, Don!

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here. We’ll see how this mess gets resolved. K12Zone has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story, which adds a few more details.

Department officials say they hope for a quick ruling; early voting in the July 31 runoff for one of the seats is scheduled to start Monday. Mail ballots already have gone out.

The suit asks for a special election for two board seats on Nov. 6, in conjunction with the general election. Candidates would have to re-file, and Democrats and Republicans would be on the same ballot this time.

A judge would decide whether to require a runoff if a candidate did not get a majority of the votes, said HCDE’s general counsel, Sarah Langlois.

A separate runoff would cost the county at least half a million dollars, according to Sumners, who criticized the department’s suit.

[…]

Jared Woodfill, chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, said he disagreed with invalidating the Republican primary for the position 4 race because, according to Sumners, the boundary error did not affect the outcome. Fewer than 1,500 voters were affected, yet the two candidates were separated by roughly 21,000 votes.

Woodfill said he expected his party would intervene in the lawsuit.

The losing position 4 candidate, Raymond Garcia, said he agreed with the department’s lawsuit. His opponent, Kay Smith, could not be reached.

Lots for the judge to sort out. We’ll see how it goes.

Boundary screwup could affect HCDE race

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.

Erica Lee

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.

Jarvis Johnson

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.

(more…)

Sullivan confirms he will step down in January

There will be one more election on the ballot this November.

CM Mike Sullivan

Houston City Councilman Mike Sullivan confirmed Thursday that he will submit his resignation next month as a result of his victory in the Republican Party primary for county tax assessor-collector, keeping a promise he made before Tuesday’s election.

Sullivan said his resignation will be effective on Jan. 1. That is no earlier than he would have to resign to get sworn in as county tax assessor-collector should he win the November general election against Democrat Ann Harris Bennett. State law prohibits him from holding both offices.

Giving council six months’ advance notice of his intentions allows it time to place an election for Sullivan’s successor on the November ballot instead of holding a stand-alone election in District E that would cost taxpayers an estimated $150,000 to $200,000.

The risk Sullivan is taking is his pledge to resign whether he wins or loses in November. A general election loss would leave him without a city or county office. In addition, a resignation date of Jan. 1 would leave him just one day short of the five years of city service necessary to qualify for a municipal pension. Hitting the five-year mark would qualify Sullivan for an annual pension benefit of more than $5,000.

“That is a very real possibility,” Sullivan responded when asked by email if he was prepared to forgo the pension benefit. “I’ve always considered it a privilege to serve, and have never viewed it for public gain. If I resign prior to my anniversary date, I will have no regrets.”

See here for some background. Sullivan headed this off as a campaign issue for the primary and will presumably do so as well for the general. I admire him for standing on principle here. He doesn’t have to do it and there is a potential downside for him. Now let’s have a debate about the direction in which we want the Tax Assessor’s office to go.

GOP results, Harris County

Bullet points for all these result posts, I was up way too late last night. See the numbers here and the chat transcript from last night here.

– You could have sold me on any result in the GOP DA primary going into yesterday, but I definitely did not expect such a wide margin. Mike Anderson ran away with it, garnering 63% of the vote. I’m stunned by that. Similarly, I would have had no trouble believing that Mike Sullivan could knock off Don Sumners, but I didn’t expect a 64-36 thrashing. Finally, given the establishment support she had received, I’d have expected Leslie Johnson to do well in the County Attorney race, but it was a rout just like the others, with former State Rep. Robert Talton collecting 66% of the vote. Wow.

– By the way, with Sumners’ defeat, as a chat participant noted we will have our fourth Tax Assessor in four years when either Sullivan or Ann Harris Bennett is sworn in next January.

– All incumbent legislators – State and US House, plus Tommy Williams in the State Senate – won easily, with no one breaking a sweat. HD133 might have been seen as competitive, with the district being significantly reconfigured and Ann Witt throwing a ton of money into it, but Jim Murphy cruised with over 62%.

– Jack Cagle easily won the right to run in November for his Commissioners Court seat. Incumbent Constables all won. A couple of judicial races are headed for overtime. With Dewhurst versus Cruz also being on the ballot for July, there will be some votes to fight over.

– I hadn’t even realized there was a contested race for GOP Chair, but Jared Woodfill won another term.

– Turnout was 152,000. Election Day ballots slightly exceeded early voting plus absentee ballots.

On to the non-Harris GOP races next.

Chron overview of the Tax Assessor primary

Having just reported on the vehicle registration problems at the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office, the Chron now writes about the GOP primary for that office.

A Houston Chronicle story Friday reported Sumners’ staff is working overtime to process a backlog of auto registrations so motorists are not ticketed for driving with expired decals. [Challenger Mike] Sullivan said current and former tax office workers have reached out to share concerns with its operations.

[Incumbent Don] Sumners blamed the backlog on a communication breakdown among staff and county budget cuts. Sumners fired seven managers after taking office, in part to save money, and laid off another 25 clerks after budget cuts came down a year ago.

“In effect, I could take their place because of the experience that I had and the education that I had,” Sumners said. “When asked about what he would do since he doesn’t have the experience, (Sullivan’s) response was, ‘I’d hire people that do.’ That’d be great if there was money in the budget.”

Sullivan said Sumners’ removal of those seven managers was not a benefit to taxpayers because it took out institutional knowledge that could have improved the office’s operations.

“The budget cut that has been imposed on the tax office now is not significant enough to justify the long lines that are there. I’ve worked at City Hall now for five years with decreasing budgets and more demand on services. We have done more with less,” Sullivan said. “After (former tax assessor) Paul (Bettencourt) left the office, there’s been a continual decline and degradation in service, and it’s got to be turned around.”

When you cut funding for a government service, you are arguing – implicitly or explicitly – one of two things: Either the same level of service can be provided with less funding, or the service cutbacks that will be necessitated are good things in and of themselves. By cutting staff, including all those managers whose work Sumners said he could do himself, Sumners is making the former argument. Clearly, however, it is not the case that the service is being provided at the same level as it had been. I continue to be fascinated by the extent to which Sumners is blaming other factors for this drop in service – a three percent increase in new car sales and title transactions (I base that calculation on the numbers cited by Sumners in the original Chron story; budget cuts that led to the staff reductions that Sumners himself implemented; “communications breakdowns”, whatever that means – but I have not seen in either of these stories a statement from him that he owns the problem and is working to fix it. I have a low opinion of Sumners so I can’t say I’m surprised at any of this, but it’s always nice to have one’s opinions validated by the facts.

Sullivan, for his part, lists on his Issues tab a desire to keep all 15 branch offices open and to “reduce long lines at branch offices”. One presumes that would require more staff, which in turn means more money for the Tax Assessor’s office. It’s not clear how he plans to accomplish that, though he does also say that he wants to “embrace new technology to improve services for constituents (i.e., kiosks that accept payments so people do not have to stand in line to make payments; use electronic delivery for tax bills to those who want them as opposed to mailing out physical tax bills)”. That’s all laudable and I’d support it, but it too will cost money up front. Again I wonder what Commissioners Court thinks of all this, since they are both the implicit target of Sumners’ whining about budget cuts as well as the source of any funding Sullivan would request to fix these problems. Sheriff Adrian Garcia eventually convinced the Court to let him hire more deputies to help reduce the amount he had to spend on overtime, so it can be done. We just don’t know yet what their default position is.

Of course, if we really want a change at this position, it’s not the primary that matters but the November election and the candidacy of Ann Harris Bennett, who was one of the Democrats’ top votegetters as the County Clerk candidate in the 2010 debacle. Bennett is certainly qualified for the job, and while she’s not getting much attention now as she’s unopposed for the nomination, she’s one of the most important Democrats on the Harris County ballot this year. I guarantee you, we’ll have far fewer problems with voter registration if Bennett wins this fall. I feel pretty certain that if she can handle that – and she can – she can do a better job with auto registrations as well.

I got those can’t get my car registration done on time blues

I have three things to say about this.

The Harris County tax office is paying 32 clerks overtime on weekends to eliminate a large backlog of unprocessed auto registrations, a potentially serious problem that could force some motorists to drive with expired decals.

Drivers can receive costly tickets and civil penalties for lapsed vehicle registration and cannot use the backlog as an excuse, tax officials stressed.

Since the overtime crew began last weekend, processing the mail-in renewals is down to 12 working days, said Harris County Tax Assessor Collector Don Sumners. Last week, a clerk answering the helpline said mail-in renewals were taking four weeks because of the backlog in April.

That means potentially thousands of motorists who mailed in their registrations – those expiring at the end of April – did not get them by May 1. The tax office was advising residents who wanted to drive their car legally to come to a tax office or one of 200 local stores where registrations are sold and purchase a second sticker, then apply for a refund when the renewal sticker arrives in the mail.

Sumners blamed the backlog on last year’s countywide budget cuts, which caused a 9 percent personnel reduction. He also cited a boost in local car sales. Auto registrations in 2011 were up 100,000 from 3.3 million in 2010, while new title transactions grew from 845,000 to 880,000.

“We’re operating under a reduced staffing level, as is all of the county,” said Sumners, adding the auto registration section is down 22 employees. “The problem that we have is the volume keeps growing even though the economy’s not good.”

[…]

Paul Bettencourt, the previous tax collector, expressed surprise at the length of the backlog and said that in the past, staff were cross-trained and assigned to busy areas as the work flow demanded.

“They need to shift people to work the backlog,” Bettencourt said. “You put all hands on deck and transfer people in from other departments.”

1. Finally, a story that appropriately quotes Private Citizen Paul Bettencourt! I knew if we hung around long enough this would happen eventually. I feel like I should commission a plaque to commemorate the occasion.

2. It sure is hilarious to see Mister “I was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool” whine about the negative effects of cutting government spending, isn’t it? I’m told the answer is to do more with less, Don. Good luck with that.

On a more serious note, I understand that cutbacks do affect us all, that the distribution of auto registrations is not uniform over the year, that there were more cars bought this year than was expected, and that all this is happening right as voter registration cards finally got sent out. I also understand that processing registrations is one of the main functions of this office. Was there really no contingency for dealing with an unexpected increase in the load level?

3. When you blame budget cuts for a problem like this, you’re really blaming Commissioners Court for not adequately funding the office. As such, the absence of a quote from a commissioner is notable. If this had been a story about the Sheriff’s Office dropping the ball on a basic operational matter, I feel confident we’d have been treated to the wit and wisdom of Steve Radack. I wonder what he thinks about this situation and Sumners’ response to it. Campos has more.

Endorsement watch: Sullivan for Tax Assessor

The Chron made its first primary endorsement on Friday, and I just now noticed.

CM Mike Sullivan

The [Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office] is, or should be, the quintessential service department – run with the customer’s satisfaction uppermost in mind.

For almost half a century, the late Carl Smith was the agreeable face of the office, the boss who was always available to help our citizens walk through the process.

But in the years since Smith’s death in 1998, a strain of partisan politics has crept into the office in unmistakable and unhelpful ways. It’s past time for that to go. The tainting of a traditional service office with the officeholder’s partisan political agenda has not brought distinction to the tax office.

The incumbent, Don Sumners, served for 10 years in that politicized environment. As head of the tax office since 2008, he has been in the crossfire of ongoing disputes over his department’s voter registration procedures.

Sumners is professionally competent to hold the assessor-collector position, given his background as a certified public accountant. But his continuing incumbency would bring with it the unnecessary baggage of partisanship that has burdened the office since Smith’s time in office.

A Republican primary challenge to Sumners by Houston City Councilman Mike Sullivan, a proven conservative with solid government and private sector credentials, offers GOP voters an opportunity to clear out those remnants of partisan politics while assuring that this department is well run. We urge them to take it by casting a ballot for Sullivan in the May 29 party primary.

Unlike Sumners (or Leo Vasquez or Paul Bettencourt), Sullivan says he’ll be “more proactive” in voter registration, saying “we have a responsibility to register people”. I’ll be voting for Democratic candidate Ann Harris Bennett in November regardless of who wins this primary, but I’m glad to hear Sullivan say that, and I would be delighted if the debate we can have this fall is about who can manage the clerical duties better rather than whether or not the office is complying with the latest court order in the umpteenth lawsuit over its voter registration practices. Having said that, I have no illusions that this is a positive trait for Sullivan in his primary. The kind of person who votes in Republican primaries is not interested in getting people registered to vote. Quite the contrary, in fact. I wish Sullivan well in his race against Sumners, but I will admit to being surprised if he wins.

Harris County voter registration lawsuit settled

For now, at least. Something tells me we have not heard the last of this.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Should not be that hard to get one of these

Harris County officials and the Democratic Party have settled an ongoing legal dispute over denial rates of new voter registration applications – at least for now – though an attorney for party officials say they remain concerned that more voters appear to get rejected here than in other large counties nationwide.

Harris County Tax Assessor Collector Don Sumners said Wednesday via email that his office has agreed to provide Democrats with a database and specific documentation about how 1,250 registration applications were denied, according to the terms reached in talks last week. The agreement spells out that the office can charge no more than $1,500 for providing the information.

Sumners argued that Friday’s mediation was unnecessary.

“They could have received the data without causing the county to spend a lot of taxpayers’ money on attorneys, not to mention expending the time of my employees,” he said in an email to the Chronicle.

But Chad Dunn, an attorney for Democrats, argued Sumners’ office repeatedly obstructed requests for voter registration data both from the party and from a nonprofit group.

“I’m disappointed that it takes a federal lawsuit to get information out of our tax office. For four months we’ve been seeking information about denials,” he said. “By every objective measure Don Sumners’ office is the worst performing voter registration department of any major county in America whether you look at total number of applications rejected or a completely flat line voter roll.”

The story notes that other large counties reject fewer voter registration applications than Harris does, and that Harris County has seen no growth in voter registrations over the past decade despite explosive population growth. As a data point, here are the registered voter tallies given by the County Clerk on Election Day for even-year election days going back to 2002:

2002 – 1,875,777

2004 – 1,876,296

2006 – 1,902,222

2008 – 1,892,656

2010 – 1,917,534

The story says “Harris County’s voter registration is about 1.88 million – a number that has remained relatively flat for six years.” As you can see, it’s been flat for longer than that. You tell me why that is the case.

Harris County rejecting fewer voter registrations

In other lawsuit-related news:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The only voter ID anyone should need

Harris County officials have rejected far fewer would-be voters since 2008, but Democrats are demanding more proof that voter rolls are not being illegally suppressed – particularly among Hispanics – as another U.S. presidential election approaches.

The two sides [met] in secret mediation Friday as Democratic officials seek assurances the county is following the terms of a 2009 settlement reached after the party challenged Harris County voter reviews in a federal lawsuit. The county’s voter registrations have remained fairly flat at about 1.9 million since 2008, failing to keep pace with a boom in the eligible voting population.

“Harris County continues to fall behind other large cities. Harris County rejects far too many applications and removes far too many eligible voters from the rolls,” Chad Dunn, an attorney for the Democrats, told the Houston Chronicle.

The Chronicle’s own analysis of voter registration data shows county officials denied about 39,000 applications in the last three years – far fewer than the 70,000 rejected as ineligible or incomplete in 2008. Of applications received in 2009 to 2011, about 14 percent were not immediately accepted. A slightly higher percentage of voters with Hispanic last names had applications denied, the Chronicle’s analysis shows.

[…]

U.S. District Court Judge Gray H. Miller, who oversees the settlement, ordered both sides to meet with a mediator Friday. If the dispute is not resolved, a hearing has been set next week.

County records show that most unsuccessful applicants from 2009-2011 -35,800 – provided incomplete information, such as leaving parts of the form blank.

As part of the 2009 settlement, Harris County officials agreed to be more flexible in reviewing voter addresses and accept those submitted from so-called commercial properties. However, about 3,000 voters’ applications apparently were red-flagged because of address-related issues in 2009-2011, according to data. In at least a few dozen cases, officials rejected valid addresses mostly from voters living in newly-built homes, the Chronicle found.

They did some good analysis of the rejected applications, so be sure to read the whole story. This action resulted from a followup complaint in 2010 by the TDP, which was itself a result of then-Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez getting in bed with the KSP. If the Tax Assessor’s office is now doing a better job of accepting valid registrations – and sorry, but I’m not going to just accept Don Sumner’s word for that – that’s great, but there’s still a long way to go before they earn any trust. PDiddie has more.

Still no voter registration cards yet

I’ve written about this before, but apparently there are some rumors running around regarding voter registration cards.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The only voter ID anyone should need

Central Texas elections officials are warning against a rash of emails spreading false information about voter registration — an already confusing issue for many because of an ongoing battle over redistricting that has delayed every step in the election process.

The emails claim that voter registration certificates expired at the end of last year and that residents hoping to have a say in the election need to get registered quickly.

“Probably just incompetence, to allow this change without public notification,” one email says. “Until this year voter registration cards were automatically mailed to arrive before expiration, but that did NOT happen this year. That means you will have to go in and apply for a new one.”

Whoever wrote the emails is clearly misinformed, said Williamson County Voter Registration Supervisor Julie Seippel. New voter registration certificates have not been printed yet, because a date for the primary election has not been set. An ongoing court fight over redistricting affects voting precincts and where registered voters may cast ballots, hence the delayed primaries and the lack of new registration cards.

Counties, including Williamson, Travis, Hays and Burnet, have tried to get the word out about the confusion, sending out press releases and talking to the Statesman about the issue.

The Secretary of State’s office sent out a press release trying to clear up the confusion yesterday. Rich Parsons, a spokesman for the office, said they have received several calls and emails from confused Texans.

“All previously-issued voter registration certificates expired on December 31, 2011, but only the cards expired, voter registrations remain valid,” the release said.

Here’s a press release from the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office:

Revised Feb. 22, 2012 — Normally, in mid January of every even-numbered year, persons registered to vote in Harris County get their new voter certificate in the mail.

Not this year. The 2012 redistricting maps drawn by the Texas Legislature are in dispute and the matter is in the hands of the federal courts.

“My office cannot prepare and mail the new certificates until the court has approved the redistricting maps. Only after that can voters be assigned to the correct voting precinct,” said Don Sumners,
the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar. “Once the court has approved the redistricting maps, we will mail new voter registration certificates at the earliest possible date.”

The Democratic and Republican party primaries have been delayed by the same dispute. Now it appears the primaries will be held no earlier than May 29.

“The delay in mailing the registration certificates will not interfere with anyone’s right to vote. I and my Voter Registration Department will support and protect the rights of every qualified voter. We will prepare and mail every certificate as soon as we can after the federal courts decide this case,” Sumners said.

“Look for a new certificate — yellow and white this year – soon after the decision is final,” Sumners said.

You know how I feel about Sumners, but he’s right. They can’t mail the cards until they know what the precinct boundaries are and what the maps look like. After we get maps, if you don’t get your card, feel free to call and raise hell. Until then, please be patient.

January finance reports: Harris County

January is a very busy month for campaign finance reports, since they are due for all levels of government. I’ve been busy updating the 2012 Primary Election pages for Harris County and elsewhere in Texas with reports as I can find them. Here’s an overview of some races of interest in Harris County. I’ll have similar reports for State Rep and Congressional races next week.

Let me preface this post by saying that I loathe the County Clerks’ Campaign Finance Reports page. You can’t search for an individual by name, you can only search for all candidates whose last name starts with a given letter. All of the reports are scanned PDFs, which means that most of them are handwritten, though even the ones that are electronically generated are then apparently printed and scanned. This has the effect of creating much larger files, which are then harder to navigate, and Adobe being what it is they managed to crash Chrome on my PC and IE9 on my laptop. They do open in the browser with a direct link, unlike the city’s reporting system which opens each report as an Acrobat file for download, which I then have to upload and share to make available on my page, so as long as your browser continues to function that’s nice. All I know is that when I am named Supreme Commander of the world, my first official action will be to outlaw paper filing of campaign finance reports. It’s 2012, for Pete’s sake.

OK, rant off. Here are the highlights:

District Attorney

Incumbent Pat Lykos starts the year in good shape, having raised $194K with $320K on hand; she spent $40K during the cycle. Primary opponent Mike Anderson reported no money raised or spent. He was a late entrant and likely hasn’t had any fundraisers yet. I’m sure he’ll have sufficient resources to wage a campaign. On the Democratic side, Zack Fertitta had an impressive haul, taking in $170K, with $141K on hand. I don’t know exactly when he named a treasurer, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t start raising money until a couple of months into the cycle. His primary opponent Lloyd Oliver, who is listed for some bizarre reason in the county financial reporting system as “Oliver Lloyd” – I only found his report by accident, looking for other L-named candidates – reported no money raised or spent.

Sheriff

Sheriff Adrian Garcia will have a tough race in November, and he starts the year well armed for it, having collected $187K and maintaining $302K. He has two primary opponents – Delores Jones has $1,038 on hand, while perennial contender Charles Massey El had no report visible; yes, I checked under M and under E. There are eight Republican hopefuls, but only four filed reports. Ruben Monzon raised $33K; Carl Pittman raised $13K and reported $24K in loans; Brian Steinacher claimed the princely total of $750 raised. The most interesting report belonged to Louis Guthrie, who claimed to raise $96K with $30K in loans. That caught my eye at first, but he only listed $21K on hand, which made me suspicious enough to read the whole report. The individual contributions he detailed added up to only $6450 in cash plus about $18K in kind for things like printing and food, which are usually considered expenses. Something is definitely off there, but even if you took him at his word, the four of them together raised less than Garcia did.

County Attorney

Not really on anyone’s radar since it’s a lower profile office and there are no contested primaries, but Democratic incumbent Vince Ryan raised $29K and has $126K on hand. Republican challenger and former State Rep. Robert Talton raised $14,650 and had $10,500 in loans, but spent $14,978 and was left with $10,367 on hand.

Tax Assessor

In the battle of Guys Whose Surnames Both Start With The Letter S And Are Thus Convenient To Find In The Otherwise Wack Harris County Finance Reporting System, incumbent Don Sumners reported no cash raised and $3,911 on hand, while current Council Member Mike Sullivan made good use of his remaining Council campaign fund, which allowed him to report $53K on hand. He actually raised $8200 for this cycle, and had $15K in loans outstanding. Democratic challenger Ann Harris Bennett, who was listed under the Bs, raised no money and had $1,856 on hand, presumably left over from her 2010 race for County Clerk. Remind me to ask Clerk candidates in 2014 about how they propose to overhaul the finance reporting system.

Constable

I didn’t bother looking at a lot of these reports, as there are just so many Constable candidates. Among those I did look at were ones for the open Precinct 1 seat. Alan Rosen did the most, raising $43K with $37K on hand. Cindy Vara-Leija raised $22K and had $15K on hand; Grady Castleberry, who also had a July report, raised $2K but had $19K in loans and $23K on hand. Quincy Whitaker’s January report was not visible as of this publication; his July report claimed $5K raised and $18K spent but did not list any loans or cash on hand.

That’s your Harris County finance report. I’ll have state and federal candidates next week. The one other county race I’m watching is the Democratic primary for Travis County DA, featuring incumbent Rosemary Lehmberg and former judge Charlie Baird. The Statesman noted their totals, and I have their reports linked on the non-Harris page – here’s Lehmberg, and here’s Baird. Check that page and the Harris page for more reports as they come in. Greg has more.

UPDATE: It has been pointed out to me that there is a “Friends of Mike Anderson” finance report, which I would have found if I could have searched by name and not by letter, and that this report shows contributions of $152K and cash on hand of $135K. That report lists his office sought as the 127th District Civil Court bench, but that’s neither here nor there.