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Harris County Tax Assessor

The Ohio voter purge case

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

I refer to the Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute case that was decided by SCOTUS on Monday. Here’s a long reading list if you want to get up to speed on it:

SCOTUSBlog
Pema Levy
Mark Joseph Stern
Kira Lerner

Daniel Nichanian
Josh Douglas
Dahlia Lithwick
Rick Hasen
Ian Millhiser
Ari Berman
Kevin Drum

Go ahead and peruse. I’ll wait.

All right. The coverage and analysis of this ruling focuses on Ohio, for the obvious reason that this is where the case came from, and also because, as Dahlia Lithwick puts it, Ohio is the “purgiest of all the purgey states”. There’s some discussion about how this ruling paints a roadmap for other states that are inclined to do what Ohio has been doing to follow, though as the Rick Hasen piece notes there’s also a potential roadmap for blocking such efforts in the courts. What I want to know, of course, is how this will and may affect Texas. To the best of my knowledge, this kind of voter roll updating/purging is done at the county level. We certainly saw various underhanded tricks here in Harris County, like sending notices to update one’s voter registration information to known old addresses, back in the Paul Bettencourt/Leo Vasquez/Don Sumners days, but with Ann Harris Bennett in office now it’s less of a concern.

So my question is, what role does our Secretary of State play in all this, and what opportunities does our SOS have to “assist” the county election admins/voter registrars in “cleaning up” their voter rolls? What does the SOS do now, and what could our Lege enable or direct it to do now that Husted is law? I don’t have the expertise to say, and the election law-minded folks on Facebook that I rely on have not had anything to say about this. It sure would be nice if one of our professional news-gathering organizations put someone on to this question.

Harris County sued by “voter fraud” trolls

Let’s get this kicked to the curb ASAP.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A conservative non-profit group sued Harris County in federal court Thursday to force the county to make available records on how it stops non-U.S. citizens from voting.

The Public Interest Legal Foundation said in its lawsuit that it had requested in December to inspect records from the county including “documents regarding all registrants who were identified as potentially not satisfying the citizenship requirements for registration” and communication received “requesting a removal or cancellation from the voter roll for any reason related to non-U.S. citizenship/ineligibility.”

[…]

The foundation has filed similar lawsuits in other places like Pennsylvania and has targeted other areas like New Jersey and Bexar County.

The group has faced criticism over the numbers it uses in claims of corrupted voter rolls. Some opponents have said they are targeting Democratic-leaning, low-income areas with the lawsuits.

See here for more about these clowns. See also this story about a failed attempt by a similar group with the same guy in charge, which may have implications for efforts like this. All I can say is that Harris County had better put as much time and effort into beating back this lawsuit as it has done with the bail practices lawsuit.

Today is the last day to cure a provisional ballot

If you voted provisionally during the primary because you did not have an accepted form of ID in your possession when you voted, you need to “cure” your provisional ballot in order for it to be counted. From the inbox:

If a voter possesses an acceptable form of photo ID but does not have it at the polling place, the voter will still be permitted to vote provisionally. The voter will have six (6) days to present an acceptable form of photo identification to the county voter registrar, or fill out the natural disaster affidavit referenced in the Exemption/Exceptions section below, or the voter’s ballot will be rejected.

Alternatively, a voter who possesses an acceptable form of photo ID but does not have it at the polling place may choose to leave the polling place and return before the close of the polls on election day with said acceptable form of photo ID to, if the voter would otherwise qualify, vote a regular ballot at that time.

If you need more information on the cure process

CLICK HERE

or contact the Harris County Tax Office Voter Registrar Division at 713-274-VOTE (8683) for assistance.

Simply put, if you cast a provisional ballot, you need to get yourself to one of the Harris County Tax Assessor offices and show an accepted form of ID there for your ballot to count. Today is the deadline for that. To find a location, go to the Tax Assessor webpage and scroll down to the map of branch office locations. If you’re in a county other than Harris, do the same thing at your county’s elections office –
find your county’s elections page for that information. Today is the deadline for this, so act now if you voted provisionally. This only applies if you did not have an accepted form of ID when you voted. If you have any questions, call the Harris County Tax Office Voter Registrar Division at 713-274-VOTE (8683) for assistance.

You can still vote if you have been displaced by Harvey

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Ann Harris Bennett

Nikki Thomason, one of hundreds of people displaced when her Thornwood neighborhood filled with water, never thought her right to vote could be swept away too.

“Angry, angry, you know it’s kind of funny the people who are angriest with the government right now, are the people whose votes have been suspended,” she said.

Thomason and other displaced flood victims checking their voter registration online were shocked to see messages their registrations were in suspense. Many were not sure if they would be able to vote in the highly anticipated March primaries.

“What went through my mind is, why am I am suspended and why has nobody told me, surely thousands of people are in the same position,” said Kimberly Truitt-Turner, another flood victim from the west side.

Turns out, state law requires each county’s tax assessor-collector to send a voter registration cards to each voter every two years. If the post office can’t deliver the card for whatever reason and they are returned, the registration is automatically suspended.

[…]

The Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s office says suspended voters can still vote, they just have to fill out a form at their polling location.

“You are still eligible to vote in the March primary, you just have to fill out the statement of residency form when you go and vote,” said Mike Lykes with the Assessor-Collector’s office.

Per state law, suspended voters can not update their addresses online. They either have to mail in a change of address or fill out a form when they go vote. Therefore, elections experts are urging worried flood victims to vote early so any confusion can be sorted out. But for those struggling to recover, this is one more hurdle they didn’t expect.

It’s not really a hurdle, in the sense that if you show up to vote you will be able to vote. You will just need to fill out the change of address form. It would be advisable to vote early, because you can vote anywhere and because having a few days before the election to ensure any problems are smoothed out is a good idea, but you could go to your original precinct location on March 6 if you want to. Yes, it’s another thing to think about, but all you really need to know is that you can still vote. Just show up as usual and the rest will be taken care of.

Now if you’re thinking “But why can’t I just update my voter information online?”, well, by all means you should be able to do that. The Lege needs to pass a law to make that happen first, and you know who’s been against such a law in the past? The Republicans, of course. Previous Tax Assessors have testified against online registration bills at the Lege. That obstacle has been cleared, but there’s still the whole Republican-majority-in-the-Legislature thing to deal with. You know what might help? A few thousand displaced-by-Harvey voters making a lot of noise about this, both in the 2018 election and the 2019 session. Channel that anger into something productive, and see what happens.

Petitions have been submitted for Heights alcohol vote 2.0

That was quick.

Voters in the Heights will likely have the opportunity to further loosen alcohol restrictions in the neighborhood this November now that activists have secured more than the 1,500 signatures required to get a measure on the ballot.

[…]

When Houston annexed what was the incorporated city of the Heights in 1918, the boundaries of the city evaporated. Because of election rules the only residents who were allowed to vote on the matter last November had to live in the same voting precincts of those who voted to go “dry” back in 1912.

A Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector & Voter Registrar spokesman said those precincts were 0053, 0057,0075,0054,0058,0086,0055,0059 and 0501.

It’s speculated by Brain Poff, with Texas Petition Strategies, the firm who helped gather the signatures needed for last year’s vote and just finished with the petition for this fall, that the same will hold true this November for the ordinance to repeal the private club model.

See here and here for the background. I feel pretty confident saying that if the original Heights booze referendum was on your ballot last year, then it will be on your ballot this year. The only real question at this point is how many other things will be on there as well. I look forward to seeing how this campaign unfolds.

Here come the Dems

All the newly-elected county officials have now been sworn in.

The new Harris County officials sworn in New Year’s Day had something in common: They were all Democrats.

The swearing-in ceremony at 2 p.m. Sunday followed the Democratic Party’s sweep of every countywide office in November’s general election, including closely watched contests against incumbent Republicans for DA and sheriff.

The blue wave in a normally purple county where President Barack Obama won by just one-tenth of a percent in 2012 was driven largely by the unpopularity of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who polled just 42 percent in Harris County compared to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 54 percent, according to the county clerk’s official election results. Trump’s unpopularity here helped spur the Democrats’ 11-point advantage in straight-ticket voting.

[…]

County Judge Ed Emmett, Harris County’s top elected official, addressed the officials and their families.

“Don’t let your ego get in your way,” he told them. “The election is over and none of us is really that important. We are part of a governmental machine that’s been going a long, long time. … The ego of the campaign goes away. You’re not the office. You just occupy the office.”

Though Emmett mostly repeated his remarks from the 2015 swearing-in, he added a few comments this time around.

“This has been a heck of a year. … There’s been a lot of talk of divisiveness, ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ ” he said, citing partisan echo chambers and the dangers of fake news. “Everyone should be ‘us,’ ” he said.

Here’s a slightly different version of the story that mentions Fort Bend and Montgomery Counties as well. I appreciate Judge Emmett’s words about unity, but it will be interesting to see how that plays out in practice on Commissioners Court, which is still 3-1 Republican. Steve Radack had no qualms about slapping around Adrian Garcia while he was Sheriff, and he was already mixing it up with his now-colleague Commissioner Rodney Ellis even before Ellis was formally nominated to the office. Neither Ellis nor Kim Ogg will shy away from a fight, and the county is going to have to deal with both the Legislature and likely the Congress working to make things more difficult. It’s going to be an interesting year, let’s just leave it at that.

Trautman announces run for Harris County Clerk in 2018

From the inbox:

Diane Trautman

Diane Trautman

As one of my long-time and best supporters, I wanted you to be one of the first to know that I have made the decision to run for Harris County Clerk in 2018!

As you know, I was elected in 2012 to the Harris County Board of Education for a six year term, and that term will be up in 2018. Rest assured, I will fulfill my six year term and be able to stay on the board while pursuing this new position.

Protecting our right to vote and ensuring a reliable, secure, and convenient voting process is not new to me. As you know, I ran for Harris County Tax Assessor and Voter Registrar in 2008 and 2010 and came very close to unseating incumbent Paul Bettencourt.

Additionally, I am honored to be serving on the transition team for Ann Harris Bennett, our new Harris County Tax Assessor and Voter Registrar, and I will also serve on her voter registration committee. Meanwhile, I will be speaking to voters at clubs and organizations all over the county to hear their ideas, suggestions, and voting experiences. I hope to hear from you as well. Look for more details on my campaign in the new year.

Thank you so much for your past support and I’m looking forward to turning Harris County completely blue in 2018!

I guess the 2018 election season has officially begun. Trautman is currently an At Large trustee on the HCDE board, and her term is up in 2018, so a run for County Clerk would be in place of a run for re-election. She will not have to resign from the HCDE board now that she has made this announcement because the constitutional resign to run provision does not apply to her. (See also: former HCDE Trustee Roy Morales, who ran for every office under the sun during his term in office.)

Trautman has the advantage of having won countywide office in the past, and being generally well liked among the Democratic base. I’m sure she announced this early in part to get out ahead of the competition, as County Clerk is now the most attractive office for a Democrat with ambitions to target in 2018 now that County Judge Ed Emmett has announced his intention to run again. I’m sure this won’t stop anyone from at least considering the race, and I’m sure there will be some people who will want to see some new blood get a chance. I’m perfectly happy for there to be contested primaries in 2018, and I hope these races draw lots of interest, from potential candidates and from voters.

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.

Dems sweep Harris County

Hillary Clinton had a 100K lead in early voting in Harris County, and increased her lead as the night went on. The only countywide Republican who was leading early on was Mike Sullivan, but later in the evening, at the time when 80% of the Election Day vote was in, Ann Harris Bennett caught and passed him. Kim Ogg and Ed Gonzalez won easily, Vince Ryan was re-elected easily, and all Democratic judicial candidates won.

The HISD recapture referendum went down big, the Heights referendum to update the dry ordinance won, and Anne Sung will face John Luman in a runoff for HISD VII. Statewide, Clinton was trailing by about nine points, and with a ton of precincts still out was already at President Obama’s vote level from 2012. Dems appear to have picked up several State House seats, though not the SBOE seat or CD23. Clinton also carried Fort Bend County, though she had no coattails, and Commissioner Richard Morrison unfortunately lost.

I’m too stunned by what happened nationally to have anything else to say at this time. I’ll be back when I recover.

Stan Stanart talks election security

I have a few thoughts as well.

vote-button

Over the course of the presidential race, concern has grown about digitally safeguarding election results.

New cyber security threats seem to emerge monthly. Republican Donald Trump has repeatedly contended the presidential election will be “rigged.” And suspected Russian hackers have broken into computer systems of the Democratic Party.

“With so much news out there, people are concerned,” acknowledged Harris County’s top election official, Stan Stanart, at a news conference Thursday.

However, Stanart sought to reassure the public that all necessary defenses are up and there is no way Harris County’s election will be hacked or rigged, because it is not connected to the internet.

[…]

“Our elections are too important to leave them open to attack,” said Dan Wallach, a Rice University computer science professor who testified in September to Congress on election cyber security. “We need to do better.”

The most attractive part of an election system for a malicious attack, he said,is the voter database – in Harris County, it’s a list of nearly 2.2 million registered voters. If hackers successfully deleted it, chaos would ensue.

But the county database is kept offline, invulnerable from the outside. Even so, Stanart, the county clerk, said his office, the county tax assessor’s office, and the Texas secretary of state save a backup copy every day.

“There are many eyes and there are many triggers in the whole system that would notify us, and we would observe if there were any issues with any registrations being changed,” Stanart said. “I assure you there’s no problem there.”

Wallach agreed that the daily database backups provided excellent protection.

The fact that the voting machines are not connected to the Internet is a good thing. Dan Wallach (who is a friend of mine) has some criticism of the “secure network” setup for transferring the voting data from the individual memory cards to the central network, but I agree with him that this is an unlikely target for attack. The main vulnerability here is what it has always been, with the cards themselves and their handling. If a card becomes corrupted or lost before its contents can be uploaded, there’s no backup. This is why people like Wallach have been calling for paper receipts to be included. That problem, and the accompanying risk, cannot be solved with the current voting machines. I don’t know how big that risk is – in over a decade of using the eSlate machines, we have not had this problem, but the downside if it happens even once is enormous, and these machines are at the end of their lifecycle with no obvious path forward. But hey, maybe we’ll make it through another election.

As for the voter registration data, it’s really a question of the county’s network security overall. There are a lot of pieces to this, so I’ll just focus on the question of monitoring. As long as they monitor all changes to the voter registration file – what, when, by whom – and they have someone keeping an eye on that, then they’re probably OK.

So I tend to agree that at the very least there’s nothing new or unusual to worry about this year, and I appreciate Stanart making the effort to address that. We should always be vigilant, but let’s not lose perspective, and let’s not worry about things that aren’t worth worrying about. If only Stanart took that same approach to the far smaller risk of in person vote fraud.

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.

Endorsement watch: A bit of a surprise

The Chron endorses Ann Harris Bennett for Harris County Tax Assessor.

Ann Harris Bennett

Ann Harris Bennett

When Mike Sullivan first ran for Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector, he promised that he would: “Bring the office into the 21st century by embracing new technology.”

By Sullivan’s standard, we look forward to Apple releasing the Post Card 7, complete with four easy-to-handle sides and a convenient stamp location. Because if you want to register to vote in Harris County, or anywhere in the state of Texas, you have to do it by snail mail – and state legislators point to Sullivan as the reason why.

A majority of the state House had co-sponsored a bill to allow online voter registration during the last legislative session. However, testimony by Sullivan redirected the sure-fire bill into the garbage.

Whatever his other accomplishments in the office, whatever the deficits of his challenger, Sullivan’s failure to bring voter registration into the 21st century should disqualify him in the minds of voters. There is no excuse.

[…]

That is why we endorse Ann Harris Bennett for Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector. An experienced administrator with more than 14 years’ service as a district court coordinator, Bennett, 63, has long advocated for better registration and election processes. She also recognizes how our property tax system treats homeowners unfairly in contrast to commercial property owners.

I say this is a bit of a surprise for three reasons. One is that this means the Chron endorsed all Democrats for countywide offices. Given the dynamics of the other three such races, this was really the only one in which they might have endorsed the Republican and thus achieve some partisan balance, if that was a consideration. The Chronicle did not endorse Bennett in the primary, and they were not very complimentary to her at the time. Given those facts, and given that Mike Sullivan has been a considerable improvement over the two clowns that preceded him, I figured he would be an easy call for them. I did not expect them to put that much weight on the electronic voter registration issue. I’m glad they did, because this is easily my biggest point of disagreement with Sullivan. I fear that the moment may have passed for online voter registration – whatever consensus there was for it in 2015, I have a hard time imagining it being there in 2017. I hope I’m wrong, and for sure we should try again. Online voter registration would certainly be easier to make happen if the state’s biggest county officially supports it. Ann Harris Bennett is the one candidate who would offer that support.

July finance reports for county candidates

Most of the interesting race in Harris County this year are the countywide races. Here’s a look at how the candidates in these races have been doing at fundraising.

District Attorney

Friends of Devon Anderson PAC
Kim Ogg


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Anderson   253,670   55,392         0    368,907
Ogg        143,311   34,417    69,669    108,872

Devon Anderson received a $60K contribution from Richard Anderson; I have no idea if there’s any family connection there. She’s a strong fundraiser, but she’s also had her share of bad publicity, and I suspect it’ll take more money than what she has in the bank to wipe that away. As for Ogg, her biggest single contribution was $13,500 from Nancy Morrison. I feel like Ogg’s totals don’t quite work, since she reported $30K on hand for her February 20 eight-day report, but it’s not that big a deal. This is also a reminder that the totals listed above for Ogg were from the period February 21 through June 30, while Anderson’s are for the full six months.

Sheriff

Ron Hickman
Ed Gonzalez, May runoff report
Ed Gonzalez, July report


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Hickman    127,153  175,247         0    135,868
Gonzalez    38,435   35,587         0     20,117

Hickman had primary opposition, so his report is from February 21 through June 30. He got $21,700 from Suzanne and Keith Moran for his biggest donation. He also spent a bunch of money – $59K to Strategic Media Services for TV ads, $41K too Neumann and Co for mailers, and (my favorite) $10K to Tom’s Pins for “promo items and Golf Promo items”. I bet that’s a lot of pins and little pencils. As for Gonzalez, he had raised $130K from Feb 21 to May 14, during the primary runoff period. His July report is only for May 15 through June 30. In other words, don’t freak out at the disparity in amount raised.

Tax Assessor

Mike Sullivan
Ann Harris Bennett


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Sullivan    70,300   39,196         0    101,564
Bennett     26,190   11,536         0      1,837

Both Sullivan and Bennett were in contested primaries, so both reports cover February 21 through June 30. You could call Sullivan an efficient fundraiser – he raised that $70K from 55 total donors, 52 of whom gave $250 or more, and three of whom gave $100 or less. Bennett has never been much of a fundraiser, and this report bears that out. Some $17K of her raised total was in-kind, which contributed to the extra low cash on hand amount.

County Attorney

Vince Ryan
Jim Leitner


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Ryan         72,400  33,652         0    171,677
Leitner      12,550  10,225     9,500      8,765

Leitner had to win a primary, while Ryan was the one Dem who had a free ride. Ryan is also the one Democratic incumbent, and he built up a bit of a cushion over the past four years. Leitner wins the award for being the one guy to fill out his form by hand rather than electronically. Not a whole lot to see here otherwise.

Commissioners Court, Precinct 3

Steve Radack
Jenifer Pool


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans    On Hand
================================================
Radack     747,500  177,604         0  1,616,948
Pool        13,750   13,054         0          0

This is the one contested County Commissioner’s Court race. Radack’s Precinct 3 is redder than Jack Morman’s Precinct 2 but less red than Jack Cagle’s Precinct 4. In a normal year, I’d expect Radack to get around 60% of the vote, though downballot candidates have done better than that in recent years; Adrian Garcia topped 47% there in 2008. This is obviously not a normal year, though whether the effect of that is primarily at the top of the ticket or if it goes all the way down remains to be seen. To the extent that there is an effect, Precinct 3 ought to serve as a good microcosm of it.

And for completeness’ sake:

Commissioners Court, Precinct 1

El Franco Lee – Still has $3,774,802 on hand.
Rodney Ellis – $1,959,872 on hand. Same as his state report.
Gene Locke – Raised $258K, spent $182K, still has $115K on hand.

I’m going to step out on a limb and suggest that Gene Locke has run his last campaign. Very little money has been spent from El Franco Lee’s account – one presumes his campaign treasurer hasn’t given the matter any more thought since he was first asked about it in January. Rodney Ellis has promised to give $100K to the HCDP coordinated campaign. I say Gene Locke and J. Kent Friedman (El Franco Lee’s campaign treasurer) should do something like that as well. This year presents a huge opportunity for Harris County Democrats, and it’s not like that money is doing anyone any good sitting in the bank. It’s not my money and I don’t get to say how it gets spent, but I do get to say what I want, and this is it. Put some money into this campaign, guys. There’s absolutely no reason not to.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, Commissioner Locke has nothing to do with the late Commissioner Lee’s finance account. I was under the impression that Lee’s campaign treasurer controls that purse, but it has been suggested to me that (at least by now) that may have passed to his widow. Be that as it may, and again to be clear, Commissioner Locke has no involvement in anything but his own finance account.

Year 2 for “One Sticker”

Surely this year will go more smoothly.

Texas dropped its familiar green safety inspection sticker a year ago, creating confusion for millions of vehicle and trailer owners in the state. Though inspections didn’t change – but might soon, as some lawmakers want to scrap them – the stickers went away as the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles shifted to a database system to verify compliance with state rules.

Though this year’s crop of registrations is not expected to result in the confusion and computer problems that plagued the process last year, some people may forget the new rules.

“I think we could have some confusion and the reason I say that is we have taken a decades-old process and kind of changed it,” said Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan, whose office handles vehicle registration.

[…]

Last year, owners of the roughly 17 million registered personal vehicles and trailers in Texas were able to renew, provided their inspection was current and valid. In other words, someone who renewed in March, and whose registration expired in April, did not have to undergo an inspection.

Now inspections and registration are closely tied. Lawmakers changed the rules in 2013, effective last year, requiring drivers to pass inspection within 90 days of renewing the vehicle registration.

Inspection results are uploaded into a state database, though officials suggest keeping the paper copy of the inspection report that stations and mechanics are required to provide after a vehicle passes inspection.

Sullivan said it is possible vehicle owners could start showing up without inspections because many didn’t need to conduct one last year. It’s also possible some drivers erred in the past 12 months. Someone whose car was inspected when its sticker expired in November will run afoul of the 90-day requirement if they try to renew their registration in April.

See here and here for some background. Ideally, this year people will understand the need to do their inspections around the time of their registration renewals, and there won’t be any technical glitches. Perhaps some periodic reminders about what is needed would be helpful. What has your experience with the new system been so far?

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.

Interview with Ann Harris Bennett

Ann Harris Bennett

Ann Harris Bennett

As I said in my earlier entry, Democrats came close to winning the office of Harris County Tax Assessor in 2012. The candidate who turned in that performance is Ann Harris Bennett, who is back this year to try again. She was also a candidate for County Clerk in 2010 and 2014; see here for my 2012 interview with her, and here and here for 2014 and 2010. Bennett worked for Harris County for a number of years as the Court Coordinator for the 55th and 152nd District Courts. Here’s what we talked about:

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2016 Election page.

Interview with Brandon Dudley

Brandon Dudley

Brandon Dudley

Democrats haven’t held the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office since long-serving Tax Assessor Carl Smith passed away in 1998. They came close in 2012, as first term incumbent Mike Sullivan won a three-way race with a shade less than 49% of the vote. Two candidates are vying for the opportunity to end that losing streak. Brandon Dudley is a longtime Chief of Staff to State Sen. Rodney Ellis, where he has worked on matters of tax fairness and voting rights. As an attorney, he has worked on criminal justice reform, while having served on the City of Houston’s Planning Commission, on the Board of Directors for Houston Downtown Management District, Midtown Redevelopment Authority, and the Texas Civil Rights Project – Houston. He was also a candidate for State District Court Judge in 2010. Here’s my interview with him:

You can see all of my interviews as well as finance reports and other information on candidates on my 2016 Election page.

2016 Election page is up

vote-button

Here it is. A few notes:

– This is for races that will appear on the Harris County ballot only. Our ballot is big enough, with enough contested primary races, that I didn’t have the time or the energy to do anything more ambitious. It’s great that there is such interest in running for office as a Democrat in Harris County, but it does limit my capabilities a bit.

– Along those lines, I have not included Constable and JP races on this page. I mean, look at the HCDP primary candidates page. There are four contested JP races involving 19 candidates, and 5 contested Constable races with 23 more candidates. I’ve already got 75 candidates in 29 races on the page. I can’t keep up with more than that.

– As always, this is a work in progress. I linked to campaign or Facebook pages where I could – campaign Facebook pages, not personal ones – but only if I could find one. If you know of an error or omission, or if you know of a page that has come online since I first published, please drop me a note to kuff – at – offthekuff – dot – com. Thanks.

– I will start running primary interviews and judicial Q&As on Monday. Again, I won’t be able to cover everything, but I’ll do what I can. Early voting starts in seven weeks (!) so to say the least this is a sprint.

– Note that some candidates have run for things before, and for some of them there may already be an interview or Q&A in my archives from a previous election. I’ve been doing interviews and Q&As for primaries since 2008, so go search the archives and see what you can find.

– For judges in Criminal District Court races, here’s a brief overview provided by Murray Newman, defense attorney and former Assistant DA. He tends to lean Republican, but he also knows a lot of these people, so go see what he has to say.

I think that about covers it. I’ll add finance report information as soon as I can, and will begin tracking endorsements when they come out. Let me know if you have any questions. Thanks.

Republican filing deadline highlights

As a followup to this, here’s a look at who filed for what in the Republican primary here in Harris County. Set your phasers to “snark” and come on in with me.

Congress

There are nine Congressional districts partially or wholly within Harris County. Republicans have incumbents in six of them, and they are running candidates in two of the others, but for some reason only bother to list candidates in four of the eight races in which they have a stake. Rep. Ted Poe is unopposed in CD02, while Rep. John Culberson has two opponents in CD07. What about Reps. Kevin Brady (CD08), Mike McCaul (CD10), Pete Olson (CD22) and Brian Babin (CD36)? You can’t tell from the Harris County GOP’s candidate webpage. I don’t know what’s up with that. In any event, there are two Republicans vying to lose to someone in CD29, and four – four! – candidates who seek the opportunity to lose to Sheila Jackson Lee by fifty points in CD18. And no, that’s not an exaggeration – SJL defeated Sean Seibert 75.01% to 22.58% in 2012. Even in the disaster of 2014, she won 71.78% to 24.76%. Seibert appears to have learned his lesson; he’s not one of the four hopefuls this time.

Statewide

Statewide candidates are not listed on this page. I did not go looking for the Texas GOP website looking for info on the judicial and Railroad Commission races, but this Trib story provides some info on the former, and this FuelFix post covers the latter, so there you have it.

State Legislature

No State Senate candidates are listed, so no one is challenging Sens. Sylvia Garcia, Rodney Ellis, or (presumably) any of the incumbent Republicans whose districts intersect Harris County: Brandon Creighton, Larry Taylor, and Lois Kolkhorst. On the House side, the highlights are as follows:

– Reps. Dan Huberty (HD127), Wayne Smith (HD128), Sarah Davis (HD134), and Debbie Riddle (HD150) all have primary opponents; Smith has two, and Riddle has three.

– Kevin Roberts is unopposed to try to succeed Patricia Harless in HD126; there are two Democrats running for that seat as well. Tom Oliverson and HCDE Trustee Kay Smith (whose term does not expire until 2018) are duking it out for HD130, left vacant by Allen Fletcher. The winner of that race will have no Democratic opponent.

– Two failed Council candidates, Matt Murphy (At Large #4) and Kendall Baker (District F) are challenging Democratic incumbents, the former in HD147 and the latter in HD137. Rep. Gene Wu, the incumbent in HD137, was active in campaigning for HERO this fall, while Baker as we know was one of the leading wingnuts in the anti-HERO campaign. Rep. Wu also has a primary opponent, and assuming he survives that I think we can guess what the fall campaign will look like.

Harris County

– Two-time City Council loser Chris Carmona and 2008 failed DA candidate Jim Leitner (who subsequently served as a top lieutenant under DA Pat Lykos) are running to oppose County Attorney Vince Ryan.

– DA Devon Anderson does not have a primary opponent, but Sheriff Ron Hickman has two: failed 2012 Sheriff candidate Carl Pittman and twice-failed Sheriff candidate Paul Day.

– Tax Assessor Mike Sullivan gets a rematch with Don Sumners, who parlayed his catastrophic tenure as Tax Assessor into an At Large HCDE Trustee gig. We all remember what a disaster Sumners was as Tax Assessor for the two years he had the job before Sullivan mercifully ousted him in 2012, right?

– Speaking of the HCDE, I presume current Board Chair Angie Chesnut is retiring, because she’s not listed as a candidate. Running to succeed her are Danell Fields and sigh Eric Dick. Can you imagine a board for which nearly half the membership is Don Sumners, Michael Wolfe, and Eric Dick? That might be enough to convince me that Ed Emmett and Commissioners Court have the right idea in wanted to have the Lege dismantle the HCDE. In the other HCDE race, incumbent Marvin Morris has George Moore as a primary opponent. There are Dems running in each race, but alas it’s Morris’ Precinct 2 seat that could be competitive in a Presidential year, and not Chesnut’s Precinct 4 seat.

– There are three candidates running for the open JP Precinct 1, Place 1 bench, the one being vacated by Dale Gorczynski. No Republicans ran against Gorczynski in 2012 or 2008; I’d have to check but my recollection from previous analyses is that it’s in the 60-65% Dem range. There are three GOP incumbent JPs on the ballot, but only Lincoln Goodwin in Precinct 4, Place 1 has a primary opponent.

– Is Constable Phil Camus in Precinct 5 retiring? He’s not listed on this page. You know who is? Former District F Council Member Al Hoang, who is one of two people shown running for that position.

– Finally, HC GOP Chair Paul Simpson has two challengers, one of whom has an email address that includes the string “creditrepairtex”. Boy, nothing says quality like that kind of email address, am I right?

I will say one utterly complimentary thing about the Harris GOP primary candidates webpage: They provide (where applicable) the webpage, Facebook page, and Twitter handle for their candidates. This is a great thing, one that would save a humble blogger like myself a lot of time and effort, not to mention the occasional mis-identification of candidates with common names. Can someone at the HCDP please make this happen in 2018? Thanks.

All right then. If all that still hasn’t sated your blood lust for candidate information, go visit this handy Trib guide to the state and federal races, which confirms that I counted the number of Dem State House candidates correctly and also missed the fact that we should have run someone in HD94, PDiddie, Stace, and Ashton Woods. And remember that while we Dems can certainly get nasty with each other, the Republicans will be enthusiastically eating their own this March.

Morris Overstreet to run for DA

I know we’re all still recovering from Tuesday, but the 2016 filing season is almost upon us, and the Democratic race for Harris County DA just became a contested race.

Morris Overstreet

Former appeals court judge Morris Overstreet announced Thursday that he would seek the Democratic nomination for Harris County District Attorney.

Overstreet, a former judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals who has been a licensed attorney since 1975, said he wanted to bring integrity to the state’s largest DA’s office, currently helmed by Republican Devon Anderson.

“I want to instill integrity, so that the people of Harris County have public trust in the office of the district attorney,” Overstreet said. “As a trial judge and a prosecutor involving hundreds of jury trials and thousands of non-jury trials, I’ve never had any criminal conviction reversed because of any error committed by me.”

Here’s a post of Facebook from Overstreet’s announcement. He had released a video on YouTube on October 28 teasing the announcement. Overstreet was a candidate for Chief Justice, 1st Court of Appeals in 2010, and more recently was appointed by the Waller County Sheriff to an independent panel of civilians to evaluate his department in the wake of Sandra Bland’s death. Overstreet joins Kim Ogg in the race, presumably against incumbent DA Devon Anderson, who has not yet announced but is expected to run and who as far as I know has not attracted a primary opponent. I look forward to the debate in this race, Lord knows there’s plenty to talk about.

As far as the rest of the primaries go, County Attorney Vince Ryan, the sole Democratic countywide officeholder, is expected to run again, and I have not heard word of a primary opponent nor of a Republican challenger yet, though I’m sure there will be the latter. Brandon Dudley, chief of staff to Sen. Rodney Ellis and 2010 judicial candidate, is running for Tax Assessor against Mike Sullivan; Ann Harris Bennett, who ran for Tax Assessor in 2012 and County Clerk in 2010 and 2014, is also running. So far, no one has announced on the Democratic side for Sheriff. The name people bring up when I ask about it is Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen, who would be up for re-election this year. He himself has not said anything, for the same reason former Sheriff Adrian Garcia couldn’t talk about running for Mayor – he’d have to resign as soon as he did say something. There’s some speculation around outgoing CM Ed Gonzalez as well, but Rosen is the name I keep hearing. Incumbent Sheriff Ron Hickman should have at least one primary opponent, 2012 candidate Carl Pittman, but beyond that I don’t know. I’ll do a roundup on judicial and legislative and other races another time. If you have a name and some reasonably informed scuttlebutt to add to this, by all means please do.

Point/counterpoint on online voter registration

Point.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texans can use www.Texas.gov for nearly 1,000 services, such as applying for concealed handgun licenses and driver records, and renewing driver licenses, vehicle registrations and many state-required professional licenses. It is time to allow Texans to use this proven, secure online portal to register voters.

Online voter registration does not allow online voting. Under the process that has been proposed for our state, Texans with a current Texas drivers license or Department of Public Safety-issued photo ID could electronically register to vote so long as the license and three other identification measures authenticate them to do so.

[…]

The National Council of State Legislatures calls online voter registration a truly bipartisan election issue. A 2014 Pew study reports states have not seen any change in the balance of party affiliation of registered voters following the introduction of online voter registration. States also report no security breaches or voter impersonation. The study further finds online registration applications five times more accurate than paper applications.

The three Texas agencies – Secretary of State’s office, DPS and Department of Information Resources – that would execute online voter registration are confident in their ability. Their representatives testified that registering voters online can work in Texas.

Department of Information Resources Executive Director Todd Kimbriel told the House Elections Committee that the state-contracted Texas.gov vendor processes more than $2 billion in annual payments from taxpayers. Since initiation in 2001, Kimbriel told lawmakers, there have been no security breaches.

An existing Texas.gov platform for voter registration is already in place, used to update residential addresses when a voter moves within a county. To initiate registration online, a person would be required to possess a valid Texas driver license or DPS ID that can only be obtained in person.

More than 60 percent of Texans polled in 2014 favor registering voters online. State Reps. Celia Israel, D-Austin and Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, bill authors, agree it’s an opportunity to work together to make our voter registration system more efficient, accurate and cost-effective.

That was written by Elaine Wiant, the president of the League of Women Voters of Texas. The arguments are familiar, and I at least think they’re pretty persuasive.

And counterpoint:

Proponents of online voter registration point out 20 states currently have such systems in place. But that means that 30 states do not. They also point out cost savings with online registration but cannot accurately identify what those would be in Texas.

[…]

The current voter registration system in Texas works and works well. Virtually no case has come to light of someone wanting to register within the applicable deadlines and being unable to do so.

Those who wish to register can exercise several options. Eligible citizens may register at the Texas Department of Public Safety, many social service organizations, local libraries, post offices and any of the 16 Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s branch offices. Potential voters also may print an application from many websites to be completed, signed and mailed.

The Voter Registrar’s experienced and nonpartisan professionals cross check data to ensure accuracy of each application. Officials code voters for the proper voting precinct, verify the data submitted and mail out a voter certificate. This both protects the registration process and provides new voters with relevant information, including the voter’s eligible jurisdictions.

During the most recent federal election, the state’s election management system temporarily shut down on Election Day, almost crippling local voter activity. The Secretary of State’s office is scheduled to undergo a major software upgrade this year. This is long overdue but full of unknowns. It would be very risky to implement a new system for online voter registration with this pending upgrade, especially leading into a presidential election.

That of course is from Harris County Tax Assessor Mike Sullivan, who as we know opposed the bill to enable online voter registration. His arguments are familiar as well, and until that last paragraph above, not terribly persuasive to me. The one part of his case that I do find effective is the reminder about the state’s website problems last November. Add that to the problems that DPS had with the One Sticker rollout, and one can understand why someone like Sullivan might be skeptical about this kind of bill and any assurance from DPS and/or the SOS that they can handle it. That may be a reasonable justification for delaying this implementation, but not for not doing it at all. Just because something works well enough doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be improved. Online voter registration should be the goal, and whatever needs to be done to make it feasible in the next session should be on the to do list. Let’s not have the same debate in 2017.

Online voter registration bill appears to be dead

Alas.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A group of Harris County officials have succeeded in scuttling a bipartisan bill that would have made Texas the 27th state to let citizens register to vote online.

The proposal was co-sponsored by a majority of the House, but stalled in the chamber’s Elections Committee after the Harris County Clerk and the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s offices rallied opposition, arguing it would make Texas more vulnerable to voter fraud, even with the state’s controversial voter ID law.

Rep. Celia Israel, who sponsored the measure as a way to boost voter turnout and save the state millions of dollars, pronounced it dead Friday afternoon.

“Texas wants this. The majority of the people on this floor want this,” said Israel, D-Austin, gesturing to her colleagues. “But I can’t get it out of committee because of some partisan election officers from Harris County.”

[…]

Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan, a Republican whose job includes being the county voter registrar, denied that politics played any role in his position. He also denied that officials had organized a unified effort to derail the bill.

“Our state is not ready,” Sullivan said, arguing he had seen glitches from time to time in voter data that made him believe his office was not prepared to integrate information from the Texas Secretary of State and the Department of Public Safety into an electronic system.

Even a small risk of making it easier for fraudsters to falsely register to vote or steal information, or of software being compromised, is not worth the convenience for the few people that would sign up online, he said.

“I have a sworn duty to maintain the integrity of the voter roll,” Sullivan said. “I’ve sworn to do it. I campaigned to do it.”

National groups that have monitored the implementation of online voter registration in other states have dismissed the concerns as unfounded.

“No state with online voter registration has reported fraudulent activity or security breaches occurring through their systems,” according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

Online systems actually reduce fraud, according to the report, by virtually eliminating errors due to poor handwriting and other flaws of paper systems.

See here and here for the background. I don’t get this at all, and based on the reporting I’ve seen the objections seem a lot like foot-dragging to me. But perhaps there is a way to shed some light on this.

Sullivan, who said he opposed a similar measure last session, could see himself supporting online voter registration if his questions about voter data are addressed.

“I consider myself open to new technology, I consider myself open to new ways of doing business,” he said Saturday. “It would be a mischaracterization to say that I am forever opposed to online voter registration.”

I would have expected Mike Sullivan to be open to new technology, so I was disappointed to see that he opposed this bill. I wanted to understand why he took this position, so I emailed him to ask about it. He respectfully declined to comment, however, so for now at least we are left with speculation. Whatever the basis for this is, I hope we can get past it next time.

Not everyone likes the idea of online voter registration

And most of them are from Harris County.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A House panel got a taste late Monday of the deep skepticism toward bringing online voter registration to Texas, skepticism coming from at least one population-rich part of the state.

It was mostly shared by a handful of Harris County officials who expressed concerns the practice could compromise voter privacy and lead to fraud at the ballot box. Some members of the House Elections Committee took note of the common thread, and Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, ended its meeting by cautioning her colleagues against letting the “negative comments of one county in the state of Texas rule the evening.”

The panel nonetheless heard praise for two pieces of legislation, House Bill 76 and House Bill 953, both with the same purpose: adding Texas to the list of 20 states that already let its citizens sign up to vote online. The committee left both bills pending late Monday.

Israel touted her HB-76 as a sign of the bipartisan support the idea enjoys under the dome, pointing out it has several dozen co-authors from both parties. Rep. Carol Alvarado, the Houston Democrat sponsoring HB-953, pitched it as a way of curbing the government waste that comes with paper registration, which is costlier and more labor-intensive than the online alternative.

“This bill is about efficient government. It’s about cutting wasteful spending,” said Alvarado, who has estimated Texas could save more than $11 million by ditching paper registration.

Alvarado had some back-up from several speakers including Samuel Derheimer of The Pew Charitable Trusts. He cited recent polling from the organization that showed more than 60 percent of Texans support online voter registration, and a third think the state already has it.

Among those from Harris County opposing the bills were Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan, Ed Johnson of the County Clerk’s Office and Alan Vera, chairman of the Ballot Security Committee of the Harris County GOP.

“Our current system works, and it works well,” said Sullivan, who like the two other speakers from Harris County expressed unease with the security of the state software that would handle registration.

Vera added that online sign-up could make it easier for voters to be impersonated at the polls, saying the “main fuel for voter fraud is registered voters who don’t show up to vote.”

See here for the background. Someone is going to have to explain to me what Alan Vera is talking about, because what he said makes no sense to me. To all those people who say they’re worried about fraud, I have to ask: Isn’t this the stated rationale for passing voter ID legislation? I mean, I could submit a registration request for Mickey Mouse, but unless someone shows up at the ballot box with one of the very few legally accepted forms of photo ID showing that he is in fact Mickey Mouse, what good would it do? I don’t see what the problem is here.

What about voting by mail? You don’t need a photo ID for that. That’s true. It’s also true that opponents of voter ID have made that exact same point about a billion times since the state GOP decided to push voter ID laws beginning in 2007. If you are concerned about the possibility of fraud via mail ballot, then you should discuss these concerns with your state legislators, since they most pointedly did not address any of those concerns in the voter ID law that they passed back in 2011. I’ll leave it to you to review the history of the voter ID fight to understand why the focus of that bill was entirely on in person voting and not at all on absentee voting.

But look, sooner or later we are going to transition from our current methods of voting, with the increasingly archaic and outdated machines we use now, to something more modern and in tune with the way people live their lives these days. Which is to say, we will do this via mobile technology. For sure, that introduces risks and security challenges. Believe me, I do that sort of thing for a living, I get that. If you think there aren’t glaring security holes in the systems we use now, you’ve got your head in the sand. We can choose to work with the technology of today and the emerging tech of tomorrow and meet those challenges head on, or we can pretend that what we’re doing now will be good enough forever and resist all attempts to change. I know which path I would prefer to take.

Vehicle registration renewal error notice

The following is a public service announcement. From the inbox:

320,000 Texas Drivers Receive Error in Renewal Notice
Mike Sullivan wants to ensure Harris County drivers are aware of issue

Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan wants to ensure Harris County drivers are aware of the issue concerning their vehicle registration notice.

According to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, two million vehicle registration renewal notices were mailed to customers on March 2, 2015 for their April renewals. From those notices, around 320,000 were printed with an incorrect inspection fee of $0.00 when a fee should have been printed. This only affects a select number of the April renewals.

“We don’t know how many Harris County drivers have been affected by this error, but my office is currently investigating the issue with the support of TxDMV staff,” said Mike Sullivan.

Affected drivers will receive a correct vehicle registration renewal and a notice in the mail from the TxDMV stating:

IMPORTANT NOTICE

Dear Customer: Please use the enclosed registration renewal notice when renewing your vehicle registration. The notice we sent to you earlier this month was printed with an incorrect fee and should be discarded. You are receiving a corrected renewal notice that displays the fee amount that is actually owed. You may disregard this notice if you have already received your registration sticker. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused. If you have questions, please contact 1-888-DMV-GOTX (1-888-368-4689).

“If you have received your April vehicle registration renewal notice and have concerns if it is correct, please contact the TxDMV at 1-888-DMV-GOTX (1-888-368-4689),” said Mr. Sullivan.

If you have any questions please contact the Office of Mike Sullivan at (713)274-8000 or by email at tax.office@hctx.net.

A brief Chron story on this is here. This has been a public service announcement. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming, already in progress.

One sticker for all has begun

Hope it wasn’t too confusing for you if you had to deal with it this week.

On Monday – the first full day under the new system for registering cars, trucks, trailers and motorcycles in Texas – drivers trying to abide by the new law faced frustration as misunderstandings and a computer glitch led to overcharges for some motorists.

The confusion stemmed mostly from new rules about how certain fees are collected. Under the old two-sticker system, car owners in the Houston area paid a flat fee of $39.75 for an inspection sticker – $25.50 to the inspection station and a $14.25 clean air fee the inspection station collected and forwarded to the state.

Under the new system, which went into effect Sunday, motorists are required to pay the inspection station only its $25.50. The clean air fee now is added to the cost of registering the vehicle.

And therein lay the problem.

On Monday, many motorists who showed up at one of the 16 Harris County offices where owners can register vehicles reported they had been charged the $14.25 clean air fee twice. Similar problems were being reported in other counties.

“Things are not going well in a lot of places,” said Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan, whose office is in charge of vehicle registration.

Monday was the first day tax collectors and motorists had to deal with the changes, and state officials relied on a computer database to link inspection and registration information.

State officials offered a more sanguine assessment of how the switch went on its first day.

“Overall, the system is performing as expected,” said Adam Shaivitz, spokesman for the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. “A majority of inspections were verified electronically at the time of vehicle registration.”

But not well enough, apparently, to avoid frustration here and elsewhere in the state where similar problems were being encountered.

One of our cars was inspected and registered as of January, so it was all under the old system. The other has been registered, but its inspection expires this month. My understanding of how this works is that we’ll get it inspected as before, and then next year both cars will be under the new system. I presume all the bugs will have been worked out by then. Educating the public is always the hard part of this kind of change. You may have seen some billboards around town advertising the switchover – see here for more about them – or you can visit OneSticker.net for more about how things work now. Anyone got a story to tell? Dallas Transportation has more.

Sticker reduction coming

From the inbox:

Harris County is gearing up for a new Texas Two Step. Beginning March 1, 2015, the state will no longer issue vehicle inspection stickers and will move to a “Two Steps, One Sticker” program. Under the new system, Texas vehicle owners will need to pass inspection prior to renewing their registration. The familiar blue-bordered Texas Department of Motor Vehicles (TxDMV) registration sticker will serve as proof of both inspection and registration.

“We are prepared to make this transition as smooth as possible for our residents,” said Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan. “During the first year of the program beginning March 1, 2015, all you will need to do is make sure you already have a valid passing vehicle inspection before you renew your registration in our office, online or by mail.”

When vehicle owners renew their registration, the system will verify whether the vehicle has a valid inspection. It’s recommended to bring the hard copy of the vehicle inspection report when renewing your registration. Without a passing inspection, the vehicle will not be eligible for registration renewal.

During the second year of the program, beginning March 1, 2016, vehicles’ inspection and registration expiration dates will align to the date that is on the registration sticker. Once the expiration dates are aligned in that second year, you will have a convenient 90-day window to pass inspection first and then renew your registration before the end of the month listed on your sticker.

“When the ‘Two Steps, One Sticker’ program is fully implemented, Harris County residents will appreciate having just one sticker in the corner of their windshield and only one expiration date to worry about,” said TxDMV Executive Director Whitney Brewster. “And because a passing vehicle inspection will be a requirement to renew your registration, more vehicle owners will comply with inspection requirements leading to safer and more environmentally sound cars on Texas roads.”

The implementation of “Two Steps, One Sticker” is a result of House Bill 2305 which passed during the 83rd Legislative Session in 2013. The program is joint effort by the TxDMV, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, in collaboration with the 254 county tax assessor-collector’s offices which process vehicle registrations and vehicle inspection stations across the state.

For more information:
www.TwoStepsOneSticker.com

The Harris County Tax Office Automobile Division performs more than 4.5 million automobile transactions in Harris County each year. It also works closely with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles to register motor vehicles, collect registration and title fees and distributes them to the proper entities. Learn more about the Automobile Services Division by visiting www.hctax.net.

See here and here for the background. I think this is a good idea, but I also expect there will be some confusion along the way. At the very least, having only one date to worry about instead of two, especially if you have more than one car at your household, will be nice.

On playing small ball

Campos reacts to Mayor Parker’s future statewide plans.

SmallBall

And here again is my small ball take from a few weeks ago:

It is time for small ball instead of the big inning.

In baseball, small ball is a strategy where you manufacture runs by utilizing the bunt, stealing bases, the hit and run, walks, hitting behind the runner, and contact hitting. You have to use this strategy if your offense is short of bashers. The big inning is a strategy where you rely heavily on the extra base hit, the walks, dingers, and have the capability of scoring a lot of runs in an inning. You need to have a lineup that includes a few power hitters and fence swingers.

Moving forward, Dems in the Lone Star State should consider utilizing the small ball strategy. We need to look at where we can pick up a run here and there. Let’s look at the map and see here we have a shot at a legislative seat, a county commissioner, county judgeship, district judgeship, county clerk, JP, constable – you get the picture. In a state with 254 counties, don’t tell me there are not any opportunities.

We are not ready for big inning play and I am not talking about a lack of quality statewide candidates. We had a good slate this past go-around. We just didn’t have the weapons to swing for the fences – a solid, organized, and energetic base. We build the base by playing small ball and picking up a run here and there. That’s how you manufacture some Ws.

Maybe the Mayor is thinking the statewide political environment will dramatically be altered in two or four years. Maybe she thinks the GOP in charge of our state government will run our state into the ground and the voters will be ready for the Mayor’s leadership. Of course, the GOP has been running the state for ten years now and they have only gotten more votes. Or maybe she has the confidence she can put together a big inning style campaign. I don’t know about that. Maybe she just wants to make sure that her name stays out there in the mix along with all the other politicos that have gotten previous statewide potential mention.

All I can say is get on out to places like Lufkin, Brownwood, Raymondville, Sherman, and Odessa and see if folks are interested.

Three thoughts:

1. I agree that there needs to be an increased focus on local elections, and have said so previously. I would simply note that there’s no need to wait until 2016 for this. There are plenty of elections this year that need attention, and anything we can do to get our people into a habit of voting outside of Presidential years will be a good thing. The May elections in Pasadena and Plano, where I’m sure some Council members will need defending, will require involvement. It would also be nice to see a worthy successor elected to fill Diego Bernal’s Council seat in San Antonio. Here in Houston, CM Richard Nguyen in District F made a courageous vote in favor of the HERO last year, and will be running for re-election having come out as a Democrat in a district that hasn’t elected anyone of the Democratic persuasion in my memory. He deserves our support, and if we’re not rallying to his side then there’s something wrong with us. The two open At Large seats – three if CM Christie decides to run for Mayor – are opportunities to elect strong progressive voices. If we want to act locally, there’s no time like the present.

2. As far as 2016 goes, if we are interested in trying to gain some ground at the county level, I would note that that is what the Texas County Democratic Campaign Committee (TCDCC) was created to do. I don’t know where things stand with that now – I suspect they got lost in the shuffle last year – but the point is that some work in identifying potential downballot targets has already been done. If there’s nothing left of the TCDCC to speak of, then frankly this is a place where Battleground Texas could step in and do some good. Crunch the numbers, identify some opportunities, share the information, and work with the locals to find and support good candidates. And if not the TCDCC or BGTX, then I don’t know who else. It’s easy to talk about this stuff. Actually doing it is a lot harder.

Here in Harris County, there are a few elections of interest for 2016. Winning back HD144, hopefully with a plan to not fumble it away again in 2018, is a priority. I still believe there is ground to be gained in HDs 132 and 135, perhaps more as a long-term investment. Countywide, we’ll have Ogg v. Anderson 2.0 for DA, someone to run for Tax Assessor, and depending on what Adrian Garcia decides to do, possibly a Sheriff’s office to win back or hold. If we want to think big – and I see no reason why playing small ball means thinking small – there’s Steve Radack’s seat on Commissioners Court. Precinct 4 was about 60-40 red in 2012, but if we’re serious about growing the vote here, that’s where a lot of untapped voters are going to be. We can wait around until he decides to retire, whenever that may be, or we can take a shot at it. You tell me what you would prefer.

3. As a reminder, there are no statewide elections in 2016 other than one Railroad Commissioner spot and the judicial races. As was the case last year, there won’t be much action in the legislative races, even with more attention on HD144. District Attorney, maybe Sheriff, and at a lower level Tax Assessor are the only countywide races that will draw interest, though perhaps if someone steps up to run against Steve Radack that will make a bit of noise. Obviously, there’s the Presidential race, and it is always the main driver of turnout, but what I’m saying is that as things stand right now, that will be even more the case in 2016. Barring anything unexpected, that means Team Hillary, which in turn means Battleground Texas, since the two are so closely intertwined. I don’t know what is going to happen to BGTX, and I don’t know how people are going to feel about them in another 18 or 20 months. What I do know is that we will have a better outcome, here and elsewhere in the state, if we – all of us, everyone – can find some way to work together rather than work at cross purposes. I personally don’t care who’s in charge, or who gets the credit when there is credit to be had. As Benjamin Franklin once said, if we do not hang together we will surely hang separately. It’s up to us what path we take.

Abbott’s voter registration persecution

Now this is what a partisan witch hunt looks like.

Still not Greg Abbott

On an overcast Monday afternoon, officers in bulletproof vests swept into a house on Houston’s north side. The armed deputies and agents served a search warrant. They carted away computers, hard drives and documents.

The raid targeted a voter registration group called Houston Votes, which was accused of election fraud. It was initiated by investigators for Attorney General Greg Abbott. His aides say he is duty-bound to preserve the integrity of the ballot box.

His critics, however, say that what Abbott has really sought to preserve is the power of the Republican Party in Texas. They accuse him of political partisanship, targeting key Democratic voting blocs, especially minorities and the poor, in ways that make it harder for them to vote, or for their votes to count.

A close examination of the Houston Votes case reveals the consequences when an elected official pursues hotly contested allegations of election fraud.

The investigation was closed one year after the raid, with no charges filed. But for Houston Votes, the damage was done. Its funding dried up, and its efforts to register more low-income voters ended. Its records and office equipment never were returned. Instead, under a 2013 court order obtained by Abbott’s office, they were destroyed.

And the dramatic, heavily armed raid never was necessary, according to Fred Lewis, president of Texans Together, the nonprofit parent group of Houston Votes. “They could have used a subpoena,” he said. “They could have called us and asked for the records. They didn’t need guns.”

The previously unreported 2010 raid coincided with agitation by a local tea party group and Lewis’ testimony in the trial of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land. Lewis had filed a complaint against DeLay that, in large part, led to his indictment on corruption charges.

Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, declined interview requests. A spokesman, Jerry Strickland, said the attorney general does not recall being briefed by staff members on the Houston Votes investigation.

“In this investigation — and all other investigations conducted by the Office of the Attorney General — evidence uncovered dictates direction,” Strickland said in an email. “To insinuate there were other factors at work in this case is ludicrous and unfounded.”

Read the whole thing and see for yourself how “unfounded” it is. It’s a toxic mix of True The Vote paranoia, bad practices and bad faith from the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office, and Abbott’s zeal to prove that somewhere, somehow there exists justification for voter ID laws. And then there’s the best part:

Abbott’s office said the Harris County district attorney in October 2011 “declined to accept for prosecution the case as prepared by investigators of the Texas Attorney General office,” according to a court document filed last year.

The document said the case related to a violation of an identity theft law in the Penal Code, which is a felony. It did not list names or details.

Strickland, the Abbott spokesman, said the attorney general’s office does not have jurisdiction to prosecute that section of the Penal Code. As a result, the information was given to the Harris County district attorney’s office, he said in an email.

The News on June 10 filed a public records request with the attorney general for the case file. Abbott’s office, which is in charge of enforcing the state’s open records law, asked itself for a ruling on whether those records must be released. In an Aug. 28 letter, the attorney general’s office ruled that it may withhold the records under state law.

The records are exempt from required release because they pertain to a criminal investigation that did not result in a conviction or deferred adjudication, wrote Lindsay Hale, an assistant attorney general in the Open Records Division.

It’s unclear how often Abbott’s office investigates allegations similar to the ones leveled at Houston Votes.

In response to requests from The News, the attorney general’s office provided a list of 637 potential violations of the Elections Code referred to Abbott since he took office in late 2002.

Strickland said he could not say how many were investigated or how many involved alleged voter registration fraud. “The office does not ‘compile or keep statistics,’” he said.

The Harris County district attorney’s office declined to comment on the Houston Votes case. Terese Buess, assistant district attorney over the public integrity division, told The News that her office doesn’t discuss cases that don’t result in criminal prosecution. But “generally, criminal charges are only authorized when there is evidence that establishes probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed.”

Emphasis mine. So Greg Abbott asked Greg Abbott if Greg Abbott needs to release information about Greg Abbott’s half-baked partisan-driven investigation, and Greg Abbott said that Greg Abbott didn’t have to if Greg Abbott didn’t want to. Makes sense to me. Be sure to read the whole thing, there’s a lot to digest. PDiddie, Nonsequiteuse, and Texpatriate have more.

UPDATE: Definitely read this update from Nonsequiteuse as well.

Competition is good, except when it isn’t

I honestly don’t get this.

Mike Sullivan

Mike Sullivan

As the Houston City Council prepares to vote Wednesday on whether to make its longtime back-tax collector share the lucrative work with a rival, city officials are getting ample pushback from the man responsible for collecting the taxes.

Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan is not the only one opposed to the idea, which he dubbed a “cramdown” from the city. Texas’ dominant collection vendor for local governments and the city’s collector of property taxes for three decades, Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, is not keen on loosening its grip.

[…]

If the City Council approves Wednesday, Perdue would get a batch of the city’s delinquent accounts, estimated at about 3 percent of the total delinquent tax roll. The accounts would be drawn from three school districts for which Perdue already collects.

If one firm outperforms the other, it will be rewarded with more accounts to collect. Houston is moving to this “competitive” approach in all its collections in hopes of increasing revenue, City Attorney David Feldman said.

“They are both good firms, they both offer good service,” Feldman said. “It really comes down to a question of competition.”

Hogwash, said Sullivan, whose office is responsible for collecting city property taxes and would need to accommodate the multi-vendor collections model. Feldman and Sullivan have been in talks over the idea for a year, but you would not know it from the tax man’s comments.

“This is not about competitiveness at all. It’s smoke and mirrors that Feldman is using to try to convince council members that it’s a good thing to do,” Sullivan said. “When you are given business and then you are judged on what you do or don’t do, or perform or don’t perform, that’s performance, it’s not competitiveness. It’s deceptive.”

All due respect, but I couldn’t care less who performs this function for the city. All I do care about is that the job gets done effectively. Maybe there’s a good reason why a sole provider is best, but speaking as a bystander it’s not apparent to me. I really don’t think this makes that much difference one way or the other, but for curiosity’s sake I’d be interested to see how these two firms did in a head to head contest. Who knows, maybe we’d learn something interesting.

Early voting starts today

EarlyVoting

Today we arrive at the more action-oriented part of the election cycle, in which voting actually happens. Early voting starts today and runs through next Friday, November 1. Here’s the schedule and map of locations for Harris County. Check with your County Clerk or Election Administrator for locations elsewhere. Hours for early voting this Monday through Friday are 8 to 4:30, and next week will be 7 AM to 7 PM.

As you know, I like to track the daily early voting numbers, to get a feel for who might be voting and what final turnout might look like. My last daily EV total post from 2011 is the reference point for the start of early voting this year. For your convenience, here are daily totals from previous years:

2011
2009
2007

I’m sure I will come back to these links frequently. In the meantime, feel free to make your guesses about turnout, results, or whatever else you’d like to prognosticate on in the comments.

Of course the big difference this year is that the voter ID law is currently in effect. Litigation is ongoing – I’ll have a separate post on where that stands later this week – but as there were no motions filed for an injunction or restraining order against it for this November election, you will need to bring the kind of ID the state has mandated with you. Got ID Texas is a great resource for that, and Sen. Leticia Van de Putte wrote a good guide to the law, mirrored on BOR. A press release from the Harris County Clerk is beneath the fold. If there’s one message you need to take from this, it’s that no matter what they tell you, CAST YOUR VOTE! If they tell you that you need to bring ID later on to (in Harris County’s case) a Tax Assessor’s office so your vote will not be considered provisional, do it. But under no circumstances should you walk away without voting, and if anyone tells you otherwise, call the County Clerk, the Secretary of State, and if you’re a Democrat the HCDP to let them know about it.

We don’t know what the effect of the voter ID law will be on turnout and composition of the electorate. One thing I know I’ll be watching for is the amount and location of provisional votes. I believe one reason why there wasn’t an injunction sought against the voter ID law was that the plaintiffs wanted to see what those numbers looked like, too. Maybe this will turn out to be less of a big deal than we fear, and maybe it will be worse. One way or another, we’ll find out.

So go forth and vote. If you do vote today, please leave a comment telling us where you voted, how crowded it was, and what your observations were regarding voter ID enforcement. Happy voting!

(more…)

Still no injunction in voter registration lawsuit

Unfortunate.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A district judged erred by partially blocking the enforcement of new Texas voter registration laws while a lawsuit alleging that the laws suppress voting goes forward, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a 2-1 opinion Thursday that there was not enough evidence to allow a preliminary injunction preventing the enforcement of five registration law provisions.

Judge Edith Jones was joined by Judge Jerry Smith in the panel’s opinion. Judge W. Eugene Davis dissented, saying the state laws conflict with federal election laws.

An emergency three-judge panel blocked U.S. District Judge Greg Costa’s injunction before the November elections last year, leaving the final decision to Jones’ panel.

The lawsuit, which alleges that Texas laws make it difficult to register voters and that they violate the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, will go forward, civil rights attorney Chad Dunn said.

“I can assure you the case is gong to continue,” Dunn said. “Texas is now the only state in the country where it is a criminal offense to run an organized voter registration drive.”

See here for the last update, with links to earlier entries. The plaintiffs can ask for a review by the full panel, they can appeal this ruling to the Supreme Court, or they can accept it and proceed with the lawsuit. I don’t know what the best course of action is, but I remain optimistic for the final outcome. I’m not sure why the situation warrants optimism, but I feel that way anyway.

One place where optimism is more warranted is the state of voter registration here in Harris County. Tax Assessor Mike Sullivan invited a number of local bloggers in to talk about his office and ask any questions about it. One encouraging thing I heard was that the voter registration total for Harris County stands at approximately 1,980,000 as of today. That’s up from 1,942,566 in 2012, and breaks a pattern of registration declines in odd numbered years:

2004 – 1,876,296; 2005 – 1,849,820
2006 – 1,902,822; 2007 – 1,799,757
2008 – 1,892,656; 2009 – 1,881,112
2010 – 1,917,534; 2011 – 1,869,359

The Chron confirms the registration total as well. In addition, the office has already done 20 46 training sessions for deputy vote registrars – the minimum required by the state is one per month – and most impressively was able to get all three federal lawsuits against Harris County over its voter registration practices withdrawn by making a commitment to stopping past bad behavior and adhering to good practices going forward. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a Tax Assessor that has focused primarily on its duties and not on partisan matters. Sullivan made a promise to do that during the campaign, and so far he’s done a good job of keeping it. It’s a very positive accomplishment.

UPDATE: Corrected the number of deputy voter training sessions conducted. Please note that the “stopping past bad behavior” characterization is mine and not a quote from Mike Sullivan or anyone in his office. For other takes on our visit, see PDiddie, John Coby, and Greg.

Early To Rise submits its petitions

From here it gets real.

The Harris County School Readiness Corp., a new nonprofit led by business and civic leaders, is calling for a ballot intiative to levy a 1-cent-per-$100 tax through the Harris County Department of Education to generate about $25 million a year for training teachers and buying school supplies for child care centers serving children up to age 5.

Chairman James Calaway touted the proposal Tuesday as he stood ready to roll a dolly stacked with five boxes filled with more than 150,000 signatures into the office of one of the plan’s most vocal critics, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

“Let’s deliver these to the county judge so he can begin his five days of verification to get it on the ballot,” he said.

Here’s their press release. There’s already a dispute over how quickly the signatures must be certified. Calaway says Tax Assessor Mike Sullivan has five days to randomly verify a subsample of the signatures. Sullivan and County Judge Ed Emmett say he has until the deadline for putting items on the ballot, which is August 26. That’s also the deadline for the Attorney General to render an opinion that would be relevant and timely. At the behest of Judge Emmett, County Attorney Vince Ryan has submitted a request for an AG opinion that asks “whether the Harris County Judge is authorized to deny a petition to order an election to levy and collect an equalization tax for the Harris County Department of Education and related questions”. (Sen. Dan Patrick has also requested an opinion.) You can hear all the attorneys limbering up in the background as they prepare for the inevitable lawsuit. I presume the fact that Ryan submitted the request means that Judge Emmett was told he couldn’t do it himself, a fact that Lisa Falkenberg pointed out awhile back. So at least this is known to be kosher.

I don’t know what will happen next, but if I had to guess I’d say this makes it to the ballot. Barring a ruling that the law being used is invalid, I’m not sure what the pretext would be for stopping it. Doesn’t mean Abbott couldn’t come up with a reason if he wants to, of course. But let’s say it does make it onto the ballot. I’m wondering now if the Harris County School Readiness Corporation has had any second thoughts about its reasons for pushing this in 2013 instead of waiting till 2014. As I understand it, they thought that they’d have a better shot in 2013, when voters from the city would be a disproportionately large share of the electorate. While I don’t think that support or opposition to the Early To Rise plan will cleave exactly along partisan lines, I do think it’s reasonable to think the Democrats are more likely to support it and Republicans are more likely to oppose it, and given that, you’d like for the mostly-Democratic city to be the bulk of the voters. Of course, in our generally low-turnout city elections, the voters who show up aren’t necessarily representative of what a high-turnout electorate would be. With the addition of the Astrodome referendum, it’s impossible to say what the county electorate will look like, and it’s no longer a guarantee that city of Houston voters will be the bulk of it. If the key to getting this passed is a Democratic electorate, then maybe it would have been better to wait till next year and the hoped-for Wendy Davis Express to serve as a tailwind. Of course, no one could have known all this six months ago, or whenever the Harris County School Readiness Corporation first geared up. They picked their target, now we’ll see how wise they were to do so.

That’s getting ahead of ourselves, because we still don’t quite know exactly what we’d be voting for.

For months, corporation members have been negotiating with the Harris County Department of Education on a governance agreement.

“We’ve been working to find the right balance of public oversight,” Calaway said, declining to talk specifically about details until the proposal is presented publicly to the department’s board of trustees Tuesday.

Wishing to dispel myths that the nonprofit simply would be cut a check for the tax dollars and left free to spend it on its own operations, Calaway said much of the finance and accounting work would be handled by the Department of Education.

The nonprofit’s three-person staff would coordinate with existing early education providers to spend the money, he said.

The challenge is sorting out how much public oversight to mandate for a private entity spending public dollars, Calaway and education department Superintendent John Sawyer agreed.

Sawyer said the proposal is unlike any other private-public partnership he has seen.

“Elected officials would allow the operations to be overseen by a board different from themselves,” he said. “My board has got to come to grips with that. Or not.”

The suggestion of having HCDE name a board member has been dropped by agreement. I suspect they’ll get the details hammered out, but I’m wondering what happens if they don’t. Does it make sense for the Harris County School Readiness Corporation to push a proposal that the HCDE hates? The whole reason why the Harris County School Readiness Corporation was able to mount this petition drive is because the HCDE still exists, unlike most other county school boards. It’s HCDE’s tax rate that we’re being asked to increase. Being harmonious with them would seem to be the first order of business. We’ll see what they come up with by Tuesday. Campos, who thinks the “right balance of public oversight” is “100%”, has more.