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Supreme Court hears TDP-KSP appeal

Here‘s a little blast from the past.

A meandering legal dispute between Texas Democrats and a Houston tea party group has landed before the Texas Supreme Court in a case that could overturn longtime election laws that require certain political committees to disclose donors and ban direct political contributions from corporations.

Arguing before the court Tuesday, the Democrats’ lawyer, Chad Dunn, warned that overturning the laws would open “the floodgates to the secret funding of elections.”

“If this court wants to open the political process to Uber and Lyft and Exxon and Pinterest and other corporations to use corporate profits to determine who ought to prevail in (campaigns), it should tread carefully,” Dunn said.

[…]

The case began when the Texas Democratic Party filed a 2010 lawsuit accusing King Street Patriots of making illegal contributions to the Republican Party and GOP candidates by training poll watchers who were provided to the party to monitor the 2010 general election in Harris County.

The lawsuit also accused the tea party-aligned group of failing to register as a political committee and failing to disclose its donors as required.

King Street Patriots countersued, arguing that several state election laws were unconstitutional, and both sides agreed to have the courts decide if the laws were enforceable before determining if the organization violated any of them.

A Travis County district judge and the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals have upheld the challenged election laws, leading to the Supreme Court’s review.

King Street Patriots argues that state donor-disclosure laws place onerous burdens on small organizations by requiring them to register with the state, keep records and file extensive, ongoing reports — leaving many to avoid participating in politics as “simply not worth it.”

See here and here for some background. I think the KSP’s First Amendment argument in favor of secret political donations is a load of hooey, but in a Citizens United world, I wouldn’t be too sure it isn’t a winner. I will just note for the record that there is a connection between the KSP and Gregg Phillips, the longtime grifter and procurer of that baloney “millions of illegal voters” claim, because of course there is. There’s never a bottom with these people. The story says that we should expect a ruling by June, so stay tuned.

Endorsement watch: Sullivan for Tax Assessor

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

CM Mike Sullivan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harris County rejecting fewer voter registrations

In other lawsuit-related news:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The only voter ID anyone should need

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

If it walks like a PAC and talks like a PAC…

…the odds are pretty good that it’s a PAC.

A Travis County district court judge ruled this week that a Houston-based tea party group is not a nonprofit corporation as it claims, but an unregistered political action committee that illegally aided the Republican Party through its poll-watching efforts during the 2010 elections.

The summary judgment by Judge John Dietz upheld several Texas campaign finance laws that had been challenged on constitutional grounds by King Street Patriots, a tea party organization known for its “True the Vote” effort to uncover voter fraud.

The ruling grew out of a 2010 lawsuit filed by the Texas Democratic Party against the King Street Patriots. The Democrats charged that the organization made unlawful political contributions to the Texas Republican Party and various Republican candidates by training poll watchers in cooperation with the party and its candidates and by holding candidate forums only for GOP candidates.

See here, here, here, here, and here for more on this charming collection of chuckleheads and the litigation they’ve spawned. You can see a copy of the judgment here and here; it’s short and fairly readable, so do give it a look. Not only were all of the KSP’s motions denied, it’s clear that Judge Dietz didn’t think much of their arguments. The crux of all this is as follows:

King Street Patriots was founded in December 2009 by Catherine Englebrecht, of Richmond. Its stated purpose is “to provide education and awareness with the general public on important civic and patriotic duties.”

During the 2010 elections, King Street Patriots reviewed public information regarding voter registration in Harris County, reported findings to the county registrar and trained several hundred poll watchers to serve during the general election. It has made voter fraud its signature issue.

As a nonprofit, King Street Patriots does not have to list its funders, but cannot participate in partisan activity. To support a party or a candidate, a nonprofit must create a political action committee. PACs can be involved in partisan politics, but must list their donors.

You cannot operate in a partisan manner and not disclose your donors. Pretty simple concept, at least if it’s your intent to operate on the up and up. Now that the constitutional questions have been settled, the case moves on to the TDP’s claims that the KSP violated state election law and are liable for damages. Based on this, it’s looking good for the TDP. PDiddie has more.