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Leo Vasquez

Precinct analysis: Bennett v Sullivan

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


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

Ann Harris Bennett

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

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

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

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

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

Chron overview of Harris County Tax Assessor race

It’s deja vu all over again.

Mike Sullivan

Mike Sullivan

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

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

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

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

[…]

Ann Harris Bennett

Ann Harris Bennett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Speeding tickets and vehicle registration

I confess, I’m puzzled by this.

Municipal Court Presiding Judge Barbara Hartle has a proposal on Wednesday’s City Council agenda to sign an agreement with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles that would have the state refuse to issue vehicle registrations to people who have outstanding traffic fines.

As proposed by Hartle, by investing about $20,000 a year into compiling lists of scofflaws and coordinating with the state, the city could reap a windfall of $432,000 a year in higher collections.

Two years ago, a similar proposal involving red-light camera runners was rebuffed by the county. City officials had proposed registration holds on red-light runners caught on camera. It required the buy-in of the county tax assessor-collector, who issues license plates and stickers. Leo Vasquez, then the tax collector, agreed to the deal and made the pitch to Commissioners Court. Because the county gets a cut of the fee when it issues a registration and would, essentially, be forfeiting revenue for cracking down on city scofflaws, Commissioners Court rejected the deal.

This time, the tax collector who would be in charge of placing the holds sits on the council, and he does not like Hartle’s plan. District E Councilman Mike Sullivan was elected tax assessor-collector this month and will leave the council in January when he is sworn in at the county.

“In my mind, it’s nothing more than an attempt to have the county collect fees and fines that the city should collect on their own,” Sullivan said. “It looks like the mayor wants to push this over to the county as another layer of enforcement to collect money for the city.”

Sullivan said he opposes the arrangement as he intends to fulfill campaign promises to shorten the lines at the tax office windows. In addition, he said he is worried that holds could mistakenly be placed on people who do not owe fines.

I understood the county not wanting to help with enforcing the collection of red light camera fines. This I have a harder time with. There’s no policy dispute about the legitimacy of the fines being imposed as there was with red light cameras. I appreciate Sullivan’s concerns about possibly ensnaring someone who doesn’t owe a fine, but surely this is a less intrusive approach than involving a collection agency or filing a lawsuit, which would be the options left to the city. This would also be by far the least expensive way to collect outstanding fines, which makes it the most efficient use of taxpayer money. I don’t get the reluctance to get involved. I note that the last time this issue came up, the ultimate decision rested with Commissioners Court, who overruled then-Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez on red light camera fine enforcement. Tax Assessor-Elect Sullivan’s disapproval may therefore not be the final word on this.

UPDATE: Today’s story, from after Council approved the plan on a 14-1 vote, adds some more detail and shows a possible path forward.

Council’s action essentially means scofflaws will not be able to renew their registrations on the DMV website. Instead, they will have to go to the window at the tax office, where tax assessor Don Sumners said he will continue to issue registrations even if the state prints the word “scofflaw” on their renewal forms.

“I don’t think they (the city) could pay us enough for the services it would cause.We don’t have enough people as it is,” Sumners said.

[…]

Sullivan said he also believes the city should not offload its collections operations onto county government. He left the door open to a deal after he is sworn in as tax assessor in January, though, if City Attorney David Feldman is the city’s broker.

“He’s apolitical,” Sullivan said. “This administration is nothing but political and has not been honest and direct and transparent with me as a council member. However, Mr. Feldman has always been fair with me in all of my dealings.”

So there you have it.

Endorsement watch: Martin and Sullivan

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

Max Martin

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sullivan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

No voter registration for you

The following email, sent from the League of Women Voters registration address to its membership, was forwarded to me. I present it below in its entirity:

From: LWV Voter Registration
Sent: Sunday, December 05, 2010 3:19 PM
Subject: Voter Registration at Naturalization Ceremonies

To our Voter Registration Volunteers:

It is my sad duty to inform you that we are no longer able to offer our customary on-the-spot voter registration service to new citizens at Houston Area Naturalization Ceremonies.

Mr. Don Sumners, newly elected and installed as Harris County Tax-Assessor Collector and Registrar of Voters, has issued directives that make it impossible for us to continue with our robust, comprehensive and efficient program.

We will distribute voter registration applications that can be completed and mailed; we will operate a limited receipt service for aspiring voters who wish to remain after dismissal for individual attention.

Please let Ann or me know if you wish to volunteer for duty at the Naturalization Ceremony to be held on December 15. We hope that you will want to be there.

We remain grateful to the United States District Court and to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services for allowing us the opportunity to rejoice with America’s newest citizens on one of the most important days of their lives. We remain committed to seeking a correct, convenient and celebratory path for each new citizen to enter the electorate. We will always welcome discussions with Mr. Sumners to this end.

Until that happy day, please remember that over the past four years 63,080 new citizens became voters by your hands, an accomplishment that stands as proud testament to your dedication to civic virtue.

For Ann and for me, it is as always a personal pleasure. You have our thanks and our admiration.

Linda Cohn
The League of Women Voters of the Houston Area Education Fund

A followup email from the LWV explained the situation in some more detail:

As you know, we have the honor of being present at Houston Area Naturalization Ceremonies for the purpose of conducting an on-the-spot voter registration service. We are guests of the United States District Court and of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, who kindly grant us a few minutes at the conclusion of the ceremony to distribute voter registration applications and collect the completed applications as the new citizens exit the naturalization venue. At the typical ceremony 1500 petitioners are sworn; about 80% will register to vote on-site, literally within minutes of their oath. I know you’ll agree that it is an efficient and celebratory way for new citizens to enter the electorate.

The numbers and exigencies of safety and crowd control make receipted voter registration applications impractical. During the Bettencourt and Vasquez administrations tax office personnel were cheerfully dispatched to take immediate custody of completed voter registration applications; this waived our duty to provide each aspiring voter with a receipt. Mr. Sumners has withdrawn this element of support, which would amount to about an hour and a half of employee time per month. We can still distribute voter registration applications that new citizens can complete and later mail (although we cannot assist or answer questions – that would trigger deputy volunteer registrar protocols and hence the need for receipts). We can still offer one-on-one receipted voter registration to any aspiring voter who wishes to remain for personal attention. But this new iteration would be a feeble remnant of what was an excellent community outreach.

I am hopeful that Mr. Sumners will be persuaded that his decision was unwise and should be reversed.

I’ll be honest, I don’t know why a voter registrar would not want to allow registrations to take place at naturalization ceremonies. After all, this is the one time you can truly be sure of someone’s citizenship. Chris Moran of the Chron got some answers from Sumners about this.

[Sumners] said Monday that technically the League’s voter registration activities at monthly naturalization ceremonies are illegal without the receipts.

[…]

Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Gerry Birnberg filed a protest with the county attorney’s office, alleging a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act that requires the U.S. Department of Justice’s approval for any change in the way voter registration is conducted.

Sumners, who took office on Nov. 15, acknowledged that the change will create difficulties for the League. But he said all other voter registration groups have to submit receipts, as does the League at events other than the naturalization ceremonies.

“It’s a matter of bringing everybody under the same rules,” Sumners said.

Cohn said it was her understanding that the League operated under a state-approved exemption for its work at the ceremonies.

But Sumners said the state has granted no such exemption. The arrangement has been merely a tradition.

Sumners said he intends to send a letter to the Secretary of State this week to ask for a formal exemption for the League.

“We recognize the problem and we’re willing to help solve it,” Sumners said.

So Sumners is saying that his predecessors had been breaking the law all these years. I’d love to know if Bettencourt and Vasquez would agree with his characterization of their actions. I’m also very interested in hearing what the DOJ will say about Sumners’ actions. Since it seems to me that in the end Sumners thought this was basically a technicality, there must have been a less disruptive way for him to have dealt with it. Something tells me this won’t be the last time we say something like that about one of his actions. KHOU has more.

Another lawsuit relating to voter registration in Harris County

As we know, the TDP is suing the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office (again) over allegations that they are still not properly handling voter registrations. That suit followed the ugly accusations Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez and his radical buddies the King Street Patriots made against Houston Votes. Turns out that Houston Votes president Fred Lewis has also filed a lawsuit stemming from that.

A few weeks after [the TDP filed its suit], on Sept. 24, Lewis sued True The Vote. He claims that the group blatantly lied when it said most of its registrations had been rejected, and that the “vacant lot” registrations had been made in 2008 and 2009 — before Houston Votes was founded and when those lots still had homes on them.

“Plaintiffs believe that these are only a small part of the Defendants’ lies that have defamed and libeled Plaintiffs. In addition, Defendants have conspired with others to spread these and other lies,” the suit reads.

According to the lawsuit, [True The Vote president Catherine] Engelbrecht said — at an August meeting which featured DOJ whistleblower J. Christian Adams — that the Houston Votes headquarters is “the Texas office of the New Black Panthers.” In a video on Engelbrecht’s King Street Patriots’ web site, you can see her refer to a building as the “New Black Panthers’ office,” to gasps from the audience. She then mentions that people around the building wear T-shirts that look “suspiciously” like Houston Votes T-shirts.

The Trib has more on this:

The suit arises from comments [Engelbrecht] made at an Aug. 9 True the Vote meeting that linked Houston Votes to the New Black Panthers, a radical black separatist group known for the inflammatory statements of its leaders. The meeting featured a speech from Christian Adams, the Department of Justice lawyer who resigned in June to protest a decision by his higher-ups to drop an investigation into whether the Panthers intimidated Philadelphia voters during the 2008 presidential elections. While introducing Adams, Engelbrecht showed an undated clip of an unidentified black man in dreadlocks on speaking on Fox News, saying, “We have to exterminate white people off the face of this planet to solve this problem.” After playing the clip, Engelbrecht said, “Houston has a new neighbor; the New Black Panthers have opened up an office.” Then she showed an image of the Houston Votes office, saying: “That looks mysteriously like the T-shirt that the Houston Vote group wears.”

The Liberty Institute, a conservative legal advocacy group that litigates First Amendment claims, is representing Engelbrecht and the Patriots in the defamation suit. Jeff Mateer, the Institute’s general counsel, declined comment on Engelbrecht’s behalf but said they’ll file an answer to Lewis’ complaint by Oct. 25. In a separate conversation, the Institute’s executive director, Hiram Sasser, called the suit “an effort to intimidate citizens to exercise their rights to free speech and the government,” adding that the Constitution provides broad protection to citizens who engage in political speech.

George says there’s a difference between Engelbrecht’s “known falsehoods” and protected political speech. “The complaining of one side that the other is a genocidal criminal is well beyond the pale of what we allow in America,” he says, noting that citizens can “talk about public matters in any way they want to, but they cannot make up lies.”

You can see the video in question at the Trib link. I have no idea what will happen with the suit, though I welcome any opinions from actual lawyers about it. What I do know is that in a real sense, Vasquez and Engelbrecht and that lot have already won:

Meanwhile, on Oct. 4 — the deadline for registering to vote for the November election — Houston Votes 2010 was well below its goal of adding 100,000 new voters to the rolls. “We had registered around 29,000 as of Vasquez’s press conference, when we lost substantial canvassers, funding, and volunteers,” Lewis said in an e-mail. “I do not have the final number from the database managers, but I believe we registered over 35,000 people.”

Houston Votes brought some problems on itself, and it may be that no one group can register 100,000 people in a place like Harris County in that short a time frame. It’s still a great shame that they ran into such fierce resistance for the act of trying to get people involved in our democracy. Fear is too powerful a force, I guess. Juanita and Glenn Smith have more.

Interview with Diane Trautman

Diane Trautman

Diane Trautman was the Democratic nominee for Harris County Tax Assessor in 2008 against then-incumbent Paul Bettencourt. With Bettencourt announcing his resignation approximately five minutes after he won re-election, the office is on the ballot again this year, and Trautman is back to run again. Trautman worked as a trust asset manager and energy lender in the banking industry before changing careers to education, where she has been a teacher, principal, and professor of education at Stephen F. Austin. You all know what’s been going on in the Tax Assessor’s office, not just this year but going back to 2008 and before, so let’s just say we had a lot to talk about for this race, and get on with it:

Download the MP3 file

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

TDP sues Tax Assessor again over voter registrations

This happened late last week while I was still affected by my site outage.

For the second time in as many years, the Texas Democratic Party has filed a lawsuit against the Harris County tax assessor-collector, accusing the Republican-led voter registration office with illegally rejecting voter applications and with sharing information with political allies that it did not share with Democrats last year.

[…]

The Democratic Party made similar accusations about what it said were improperly rejected voter applications in a lawsuit filed just after the 2008 elections against then-Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt. Bettencourt denied any wrongdoing, but the county and Vasquez settled the suit with the Democrats last year.

The Democrats charge that Vasquez has violated the settlement agreement.

Here’s the lawsuit. As you can see, it’s entirely focused on Vasquez’s behavior and the terms of the settlement that Vasquez himself agreed to, which you can see here.

There are two points that need to be addressed. One has to do with who gets to see information from the Tax Assessor’s office:

The suit also alleges that Vasquez shared voter information with a citizens anti-voter fraud group called True the Vote, an offshoot of a local tea party group, that his office would not share with the Democrats last year.

“It’s apparent that voter registration in Harris County is being run for partisan gain,” said Chad Dunn, general counsel for the state Democratic Party.

Vasquez countered that True the Vote acquired information through an open records request — and paid for it — just as any other individual or group could. The group examined voter records at addresses where six or more people are registered to vote and found instances where there is no dwelling on the property. Last year, the Democrats asked for copies of 70,000 voter registration applications that were rejected or deemed incomplete. The records would have required redactions to protect personal information, and at the time the county put a price tag of $1.5 million on the information. The Democrats did not obtain the information.

In other words, Vasquez wanted to charge the Democrats more than $200 per record. Putting aside for the moment whether or not that’s a reasonable price, the story does not say how many records True the Vote requested, how much they were charged for them, or where they might have gotten the money for it if the price tag was at all comparable to the one shown to the TDP. Seems to me that’s a pretty objective thing to measure, and might settle the question about equivalent access in short order.

The other point has to do with the character of True the Vote, since they’re presenting themselves as some kind of defenders of truth, justice, and the American way. To that end, I direct you to Glenn Smith, who shows that one other thing True the Vote stands for is creating fake images to further their goals. Note to Leo Vasquez: You should be more careful about who you get into bed with.

Houston Votes responds

Earlier today Houston Votes responded to the accusations lobbed at them by outgoing Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez. First, here’s their press release:

On Tuesday, August 24, Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar Leo Vasquez made reckless and false allegations against Houston Votes in an apparently coordinated, partisan effort to suppress voter registration and to intimidate citizens into not voting. Sadly, this type of shameful tactic has worked all too well in the past. Houston Votes is committed to non-partisan voter registration and helping register the over 600,000 citizens eligible to vote who are not even registered in Harris County.

Fred Lewis, head of Houston Votes, said, “Those who propagate lies and distortions like those of Mr. Vasquez and his partisan allies are eroding our democracy, and we ask the Voting Rights Section of the Justice Department to immediately investigate and monitor his office and his radical allies.”

Mr. Vasquez’s histrionic complaints are false and defamatory. Houston Votes seeks to register as many Houstonians as are eligible, which Mr. Vasquez unfortunately sees as a “burden” and a threat. Rather than celebrate new registrants, Mr. Vasquez apparently intends to reduce his workload by intimidating people from registering. He and his staff are paid with taxpayer dollars to process voter registration cards. They should do their jobs without complaining or engaging in partisan, political activity.

The recklessness and falseness of Mr. Vasquez’s allegations, combined with his unprofessional and partisan actions, raise serious questions about his political motivations. Houston Votes is asking the Justice Department to investigate voting rights violations by Mr. Vasquez and his office through a political campaign to intimidate voter registration. The Registrar’s Office has a long history of voter suppression. We have reason to believe that his office is continuing its systematic practice of illegally not approving registration applications from eligible citizens despite public outcry and costly litigation.

Mr. Vasquez’s press conference, as part of his official non-partisan duties, was a political circus, with dozens of partisan operatives present. Mr. Vasquez appears to have abused the power of his office by collaborating with the King Street Patriots, a partisan organization that took credit for uncovering the “fraud” alleged against Houston Votes This political organization’s website states “that current political initiatives must be focused on mobilizing the conservative electorate”. It appears that Leo Vasquez openly coordinated with King Street Patriots to further personal political goals and retard the efforts of Houston Votes in registering people. He also appears to have shared legally confidential voter registration data with partisan political third parties, which is unlawful. Both activities warrant a criminal investigation by the Justice Department.

Here’s their detailed rebuttal to the allegations. The main points they make are that they had been working with Vasquez’s office to ensure they were complying with the law (here’s the letter they wrote to Vasquez and County Attorney Vince Ryan to set up one such meeting back in July); they had taken action every time an irregularity had been pointed out, including firing workers who were not doing things right; they had tried to contact Vasquez prior to his spectacle when they had heard rumors that he was unhappy with them, but he never called them back; and that Vasquez did not provide any corroborating evidence for the claimed numbers of questionable forms. I don’t recall seeing any reports of such corroboration in previous stories about Vasquez’s dog and pony show. Perhaps someone should have pressed him on that. We’ll see what Vasquez and his comrades have to say next. Neil, who was at this conference and another one held by the teabaggers, has more.

Vasquez throws a bomb at Houston Votes

I guess outgoing Harris County Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez wasn’t quite ready to return to obscurity.

Harris County Tax Assessor Collector Leo Vasquez accused a nonprofit group of submitting thousands of bogus voter registration applications in recent months in what he said appears to be a campaign to taint the voter rolls.

Vasquez said his office has received thousands of duplicate applications, including cases in which the office has received six applications for the same person. Other irregularities he cited in the more than 25,000 applications submitted by Houston Votes include cases of underage applicants and people who identified themselves as noncitizens.

“The integrity of the voter roll of Harris County, Texas, appears to be under an organized and systematic attack by the group operating under the name Houston Votes,” Vasquez said.

Vasquez lobbed these charges at a press conference that was more political rally than anything else, as he packed the place with the sort of people who are convinced that the streets are teeming with illegal voters. You can just imagine them high-fiving and chest-bumping in the background.

The accusations boil down to some number of duplicated registrations, and some number of registrations with invalid data. Seems to me that’s mostly to be expected in a large voter registration drive.

[Texans Together President Fred] Lewis explained that duplicates often happen when people are not sure whether they are registered or cannot remember if they have registered since they last moved.

Lewis said he had continued to try to cooperate with Vasquez, but that the tax collector, who serves as the county’s voter registrar, had not returned his calls in the past week. He said they had been scheduled to meet this morning to discuss Houston Votes applications.

“He is a disgrace,” Lewis said of Vasquez. “We need to have the Justice Department come in and see what Mickey Mouse stuff he and his office are doing to suppress people.”

It’s entirely possible that Texans Together has been sloppier than they should be. Maybe they’re not up to this task; maybe no one is. But to claim nefarious intent is quite a stretch, and I’ll be very surprised if the District Attorney, to whom Vasquez says he’s going to refer this, makes anything of it. I’m never quite sure how these schemes that Vasquez and his buddies dream about are supposed to work. Are all these people who’ve never voted before expected to show up at multiple polling places and hope nobody notices? Assuming that the bogus and duplicated registrations made it past both Vasquez and the Secretary of State, of course. Sure, that sounds bulletproof to me. I’ll bet Pat Lykos can’t wait to bring that before a jury.

I’ve also never quite understood why some people want to make it so hard for others to vote. I grew up believing that the right to vote was precious and what made democracy the best system of government there is. Apparently, that’s now a matter of partisanship. The story notes that much of the Texans Together board is made up of Democrats. Maybe that’s because the type of person who thinks it’s good for more people to vote tends to be Democratic. It’s been made quite clear in recent years that the type of person who wants to see fewer people vote tends to be Republican, that’s for sure.

Anyway, Houston Votes will have a press conference of their own today at 10:30 to formally respond to Vasquez’s allegations. I’ll update this afterward to include what they had to say. In the meantime, go see what Stace, Neil, John, Perry, and Houston Politics have to say.

Emmett speaks about his county elections administrator proposal

County Judge Ed Emmett has a brief op-ed in the Chron to respond to some concerns about his proposal to study the possibility of an appointed elections administrator.

There have been several false statements made that an elections administrator would be appointed by Harris County Commissioners Court. As laid out by state law, an elections administrator is appointed and overseen by a commission of five members — the county judge, county clerk, tax assessor-collector and the county chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties.

The Chronicle editorial said, “The need for a nonpartisan election administrator in Harris County has become obvious.” And although partisan candidates for the office of tax assessor have made false and outrageous statements in an effort to politicize voter registration, many others from all across the political spectrum have told me they would like to see us consider such an office. Clearly, voters are tired of candidates who put their candidacies above the public good.

I also need to clarify an issue that those candidates have intentionally tried to muddy. Unfortunately, even the Chronicle editorial reflected this error. There has never been any intention to create the office of elections administrator before the November elections. As I said before and after the editorial was published, I personally would favor creating an office of elections administrator only if I believed it to be feasible and only would do so after Jan. 1, when elections for county judge, county clerk and county tax assessor-collector are over and the winners sworn in. That, I believe, would best ensure that the new elections administrator would reflect the desires of the voters of Harris County.

I appreciate that Judge Emmett wants to wait until after the November election to see if we want to take any further steps with this, but he didn’t address the Chron’s assertion that this proposal is only being made because Emmett’s preferred candidates lost their primaries. It’s not unreasonable to ask why this is being brought up now. Whatever the merits of this idea – and again, I’m willing to hear it out – it’s easy to believe we’d not be discussing it at all if Leo Vasquez and Kevin Mauzy were on the November ballot. If that’s not true, then show some evidence that this has been in the works, or at least under consideration, since before the March primaries. And if it is true, then be up front about it. If there really are a lot of people clamoring for a non-partisan elections administrator, then a straight-up admission by Judge Emmett that he thinks it would be preferable to any of the candidates running for either County Clerk or Tax Assessor ought to be a selling point.

Casey and the Chron on an elections administrator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ballot position and the Republican races

Inspired by a comment JJMB left on the previous post about the effect of ballot position on the judicial races, I went and looked at the Republican results to see what I could see. Here’s what I found.

– Though there were the same number of races on each ballot, the Republicans had far fewer contested judicial primaries than the Democrats had, a total of sixteen if you include the Supreme Court and Appeals Courts, all of which were unopposed on the Democratic side. By comparison, there were 30 contested Democratic judicial primaries. The reason for fewer multi-candidate GOP races is simple: the vast majority of them featured incumbents, who generally went unchallenged. On the one hand, having fewer contested races probably saves on brainpower, since you had fewer things to pay attention to and have fewer decisions to make. On the other hand, you still have to slog through all of those uncontested races, and having those fewer decisions to make may well be more boring and glazed-eye-inducing. I have no way to evaluate that, so I’ll leave it to you to decide if that makes voters more or less likely to find a shortcut.

– Skipping the two Supreme Court races, there were nine contested primaries for Appeals Court or District Court. The candidate listed first won twice, lost six times, and made it to a runoff once. I should note that of the six candidates who were listed first but lost, three of them were taking on incumbents – Evelyn Keyes, Mike Massengale, and Lynn Bradshaw Hull. I would not consider those races to be relevant to this conversation, as incumbents will have a higher level of name recognition, and presumably access to the needed resources to run a real campaign. I don’t get Republican mail so I can’t verify that, but I sure did see plenty of Mike Massengale signs in people’s yards. On the other hand, one of the top-spot candidates who won was a District Court incumbent (Sharon McCally) who took on a sitting Appeals Court incumbent (Leslie Brock Yates) in what turned out to be a rather nasty race. Again, I don’t think this is a relevant example.

– There were five contested races for County or Probate Courts. Four of the five candidates listed first lost; the exception was Don Smyth. One of those losing candidates, Charles Coussons, had withdrawn from the race between the filing deadline and the election, but too late to have his name removed.

– Finally, we come to three non-judicial races, for District Clerk, County Clerk, and Tax Assessor. Paul Dwight, Stan Stanart, and Don Sumners, respectively, were listed first for each, with Dwight losing and the other two winning. Given the track record of candidates listed first up to this point, I can’t claim that it helped Stanart or Sumners. At best, I’d say any effect was inconclusive, since their results were atypical. I’d probably make a stronger case for Stanart being helped than Sumners since I think the Tax Assessor race was higher profile, and featured an incumbent to boot. But again, I’m generally not on the business end of Republican campaigning, so I can’t accurately assess that. All I can tell you is what I’ve laid out here, and you can make of it what you will.

– Finally, reader Gwen sent me a spreadsheet, which I have made available as a Google doc, which contains a basic model that predicts the winner in the Democratic judicial primaries based on ballot position and the Chron endorsement. You are welcome to play around with it and see if you can build on what it does.

Vasquez and Carrillo

Newly-unelected Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez makes the same complaint about why he is headed for the unemployment line as Victor Carrillo did.

Carrillo started the ethnic angst with an e-mail to supporters indicating racial bias had cost him re-election. That was followed up by Vasquez’s campaign manager and girlfriend, SuZanne Feather, sending out an e-mail saying there were “many similarities” between Carrillo and Vasquez’s loss on Tuesday to tea party activist Don Sumners. Vasquez joined in during an interview with the Houston Chronicle.

“It is perplexing that someone could basically spend no money whatsoever and mount no campaign and win as handily as he did,” Vasquez said. “The same thing happened in the Victor Carrillo race as well.”

But Vasquez’s predecessor in office, Paul Bettencourt said Vasquez lost because he had issues in his personal life that cost him the support of social conservative organizations.

Consultant Allen Blakemore, speaking for social conservative leader Steve Hotze, said Republicans were upset with Vasquez for settling a voter-registration lawsuit with Democrats and for not being as vocal on property tax increases as Bettencourt. Blakemore said the “final blow” came when social conservative leaders learned Vasquez lives with a woman married to another man.

Vasquez admitted social conservative leaders Hotze and Terry Lowry “probably got him (Sumners) another 10,000 votes and maybe even made the full difference between us.”

“The Republican Party, especially in Harris County, has been, unfortunately, overly controlled and influenced by a small, but vocal group on the religious right, and we need to get back to the core principles of fiscal conservative issues rather than these social issues that are being perpetuated by that small, but vocal, minority,” Vasquez said.

You’re just figuring that out now, Leo? What color is the sky on your planet?

As for the justifications Bettencourt and Blakemore give, I’ll say this much. I had heard about Vasquez’ relationship to Feather, and can say with confidence that it would have come up in the general election had Vasquez been the nominee. I have no idea how well known it was among the people who actually voted in that race – Big Jolly mentions it, while also acknowledging Vasquez’ complaint and noting that “there is still a lot of resentment around the county in the wake of Paul Bettencourt’s sudden resignation and Vasquez’ appointment” – but my suspicion is that it wasn’t particularly well known. Had Don Sumners made it a campaign issue, I expect it would have been news, and there was no such news reported. A Google search of “leo vasquez suzanne feather” yields nothing relevant. Similarly, I can’t really evaluate the claim about Vasquez’s settlement of the HCDP lawsuit. Big Jolly didn’t mention it, and a Google search turns up mostly Democratic links. Maybe more people knew about it than I might think, but if it was a campaign issue and not just something that a handful of connected folks were grumbling about, it was a mighty quiet one.

I don’t doubt that the issues Bettencourt and Blakemore cite affected how some people voted. The question is how many of the 120,000+ people who cast a vote in that race were affected by those particular factors. Unlike David Porter, Don Sumners was at least someone who had been an elected official before, and presumably started out with some kind of base. That in and of itself may have been enough for him to win.

One thing I am sure of is that Vasquez is now officially dead to the Republican establishment. Look at what they’re doing to poor Victor Carrillo:

Republican consultant Ted Delisi said Carrillo spent far less than Railroad Commissioners Elizabeth Ames Jones or Michael Williams did on their re-election campaigns and said Carrillo did little personal campaigning.

“In the end, a bad campaign is just a bad campaign,” Delisi said.

That’s a pretty remarkable piece of disinformation. First, it appears to be comparing Williams’ and Ames Jones’ general election efforts to Carrillo’s primary campaign. I say that in part because Michael Williams had no primary opponent in 2008, so however much money he spent in that race, his renomination was never in doubt. As for Ames Jones, she did have a primary opponent in 2006. Her eight days out report for that race shows that she spent $580,116. Carrillo’s eight days out report, by comparison, had expenditures of $525,666. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t meet my definition of “far less”. Finally, since Porter ran no campaign at all, Delisi is implying that Carrillo’s campaign was not merely inadequate but that it must have actively persuaded people to vote against him. Even by the standards of Republican consultants, that’s a pretty damn brazen thing to say. But it’s the sort of thing they’re going to be saying about you now, Leo. I hope you’re prepared for that.

Voter registration deadline is Monday

I’m sure everyone reading this is already registered to vote. But if for some reason you’re not, or you’re not sure, your last chance to be registered in time for the primaries is tomorrow, Monday, February 1. Here’s a press release from the Tax Assessor’s office:

Harris County Voter Registrar Leo Vasquez reminds Harris County citizens to register to vote now. The deadline to register to vote in the 2010 primary elections is February 1, 2010.

“The primaries will be held March 2 and are a vital part of how citizens choose their representatives and judges. Often, the only real contests in some districts – your political neighborhood — are in a party’s primary,” Vasquez explained.

“Nearly 1.9 million Harris County citizens are on the voter roll. Through various community outreach efforts, the Tax Office has made it very easy to register. Just do it now, please,” Vasquez urged.

He pointed out that voter registration renewal certificates have been mailed. If you are registered and have not received your new certificate, which is blue, please contact our office at 713 368-VOTE.

Visit the Tax Office Web site at www.hcvoter.net to ensure that you are properly registered. If you need to update your address or make a name change, you can obtain a voter registration application on our Web site, at any Tax Office branch location, local post offices, libraries and City of Houston community and health centers.

To be eligible to vote in the March 2 primary elections, your completed voter registration application must be delivered to any Tax Office branch location before 4:45 p.m. on Feb. 1, or mailed with a U.S. Postal Service postmark date of no later than Feb. 1, 2010. State law requires citizens to be registered to vote 30 days prior to the election date in order to be eligible.

Applicants may register to vote if they:

* Are a resident of Harris County, and
* Are at least 17 years, 10 months of age (to vote, you must be 18), and
* Are a U.S. citizen, and
* Have not been finally convicted of a felony, (unless they have completed all punishment including any term of incarceration, parole, supervision, period of probation, or have been pardoned); and
* Have not been determined by a final judgment of a court exercising probate jurisdiction to be totally mentally incapacitated or partially mentally incapacitated without the right to vote.

For more information, please contact the Harris County Tax Office Voter Registration Department at 713-368-VOTE (8683).

I got my updated voter registration card a week or so ago. Have you received yours?

Overview of the Tax Assessor primary

We’re a bit more than three weeks out from the start of early voting, so it’s time for some overviews of the contested primaries on the ballot. Here’s the first one, for the Republican race between County Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez and former County Treasurer and now-retired employee of the Tax Assessor’s office, Don Sumners.

Sumners sees the job as a platform for activism. He saw the county treasurer’s job that way when he held it from 1995 to 1998.

In his single term he spoke out against Commissioners Court’s increase of the tax rate, the pay raise it authorized for commissioners and other county employees and the bond measure that approved taxpayer funding for football, baseball and basketball stadiums.

“I was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool,” Sumners declared. He said his candidacy did not result from the Tea Party movement, but that he hopes to gain its leaders’ endorsements.

[…]

Sumners, 70, retired last November so he could run against his new boss.

“I just didn’t want to see all the work that Paul had done to raise the stature of the office to make it something more than just a bureaucratic collection agency, which is really what it was under (Carl) Smith,” who led the office from 1947 until his death in 1998, Sumners said.

Vasquez, he said, has dropped the advocacy role of the office.

Vasquez counters, “The more one starts yelling and screaming about every little thing, the less people will listen to you.”

That’s actually an interesting philosophical difference. My view is that Sumners’ beliefs are more suited to the Treasurer than the Tax Assessor. I believe that as long as the Tax Assessor is also responsible for being the voter registrar, than that person ought to at least give the appearance of not being a strident partisan. I don’t see anything wrong with the Carl Smith model. Of course, I won’t be voting in that primary, so it doesn’t really matter at this time. We’ll see if Sumners’ views get any traction with those voters.

White v. Vasquez

Harris County Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez says Look at me!”

Mayor Bill White and Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Leo Vasquez traded barbs Tuesday over two contracts that have led relations between the city and county to what Mayor Bill White called a “low point” just as he is leaving office to run for governor.

Vasquez went to City Council’s public session ostensibly to urge White to sign a contract raising the amount the city pays the county to collect Houston property taxes, but it quickly became clear his remarks had a political edge as he accused White of leaving the city’s budget in “disastrous” condition.

“Mr. Mayor, I urge you to quit wasting time and not leave this mess for others to clean up after you,” Vasquez said. “Please sign the updated fee agreement so that the rest of us can get on with the business of government.”

White responded by blasting Vasquez for failing to communicate with him about the disputed contracts.

You can read Vasquez’s press release, which reads like it came out of Rick Perry’s political shop, here, and White’s response letter here. One of them sounds like a responsible adult, the other, well, read them and see for yourself. Honestly, for the relatively small amount in question, it’s hard to see why that press release, with the tone it adopts, would be the right call. I mean, can you imagine Ed Emmett doing something like that? I can’t. KUHF has more.

On a side note:

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said he has “no relationship with the new mayor,” noting that she called him once during the course of the campaign, asking to meet, and he did not do so.

“When the city talks about cooperation, what they’re trying to say to the county is, ‘please send money,’ ” he said.

Sure, Steve. Please tell me, how much in taxes does the county derive from Houston residents, and just how much does the county spend building roads and parks here? I just love seeing my tax dollars going to boondoggles like the Grand Parkway. You show me how much of your budget comes from City of Houston monies, and then we can talk about who’s supporting whom.

You can still register for the runoff

I suspect that just about everyone reading this blog is a registered voter, but if you aren’t, or you know someone who isn’t, you get a second chance for the runoff.

Harris County Voter Registrar Leo Vasquez reminds citizens they can still register to vote and participate in the runoff election on Dec. 12, 2009. Citizens who are not registered to vote must do so on or before Thursday, Nov. 12 to vote in the City of Houston runoff election on Dec. 12.

Vasquez pointed out that there also will be runoffs in the City of Bellaire and the Houston Independent School District.

“These are crucial elections. In Houston, voters will choose a new mayor and new city controller. Several council races will be decided too. If you are registered, you can vote in the runoff even if you did not vote Nov. 3. But remember, if you are not registered, hurry and register now so your voice can be heard,” Vasquez urged.

Vasquez noted that his office has made registering to vote more convenient than ever in Harris County. Voter registration applications are available at all 16 Harris County Tax Office branches, public libraries, City of Houston multi-service centers, community centers and health clinics. Citizens can even download an application from the Harris County Tax Office’s Web site, www.hcvoter.net.

As they say, act now and don’t delay. You have a week. Martha has other relevant dates for the runoff.

Both sides may claim victory, but that doesn’t mean they both achieved it

As you know, last week there was a settlement reached in the lawsuit against the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office over allegations that they improperly rejected thousands of voter registration applications last year. Shortly after that agreement was signed, the Lone Star Project touted it as a major victory for the plaintiffs, who got vindication on many of their claims and agreement from the Tax Assessor’s office to do things differently in several key areas. Earlier this week, the Tax Assessor’s office sent out a press release saying that it was they who had been proven right. Some lawsuits allow for win-win resolutions, but this one struck me as more of a zero-sum endeavor. So who really did win? According to this Chron editorial that praised the settlement, it wasn’t Leo Vasquez.

Vasquez issued a statement calling the settlement a vindication from baseless allegations. But the specified changes in the tax-office procedures for handling registration applications make it clear that the original complaints were anything but frivolous.

The settlement requires that the office’s voter registrar must either process a registration application or notify the applicant why the paperwork is being rejected within the state-mandated seven days.

The registrar must also provide within three business days, upon request by chairs of political parties, reports of all voters registered, applications received, the number rejected, and the names and addresses of those affected.

The settlement also prohibits employees and contractors working for the tax office’s voter section from “having other employment or financial interests in any outside company providing voter information to any candidate, political party, or other person or entity.”

Well, the settlement does include no admission of wrongdoing, as is often the case in situations like this. If Vasquez wants to hang his hat on that, it’s fine by me. I’ll take the substantive changes that were made, and will look forward to ensuring that what happened in 2008 never happens again. You can read the agreement here and judge for yourself.

Settlement reached in Harris County voter registration lawsuit

You may recall the lawsuit that was filed back in December against Paul Bettencourt and the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office over allegations that thousands of voter registration applications were rejected for frivolous reasons. That lawsuit has now been settled.

Gerry Birnberg, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party, said the agreement will ensure the registrar’s office does not exceed the seven days state election law allows it to process a voter registration application or send the applicant a letter explaining why he or she was not registered.

“The bottom line is this resolution should make the voter registration process more efficient, fairer and easier for qualified citizens wanting to register to vote,“ Birnberg said. “It should ensure more of them will be accepted and be processed in time to be able to vote.”

Birnberg said the settlement — reached after mediation between party officials, the registrar’s office and the county attorney’s office — will eliminate the technical challenges the local office made to applications for voter credentials.

The Quorum Report has more details:

The plaintiffs had been seeking to review the 70,000 rejected voter registration applications in the belief that hyper-technicalities had been used to systematically disenfranchise certain classes of eligible voters. Harris County had rejected more than 30 times the number of voter registrations as had Dallas County in the same period.

The settlement is being formalized tonight but Special Assistant County Attorney John Odom told QR that the plaintiffs dropped their efforts to review historical documents for improprieties in exchange for enumerated procedures that prevented future voter registration rejections based on the issues about which Democrats had complained.

In addition, the settlement prohibits county election officials from moonlighting in political businesses. The former #2 voter registration official Ed Johnson was suspected by Democrats of both improperly rejecting applications and using information obtained in his official position for his political consulting partnership with state Rep. Dwayne Bohac.

Works for me. I would have liked to pursue that historic review, but what was gotten in trade for it seems like a good deal. If it helps prevent what happened before from happening again, it’s well worth it.

County doesn’t want to help city collect red light camera fines

Last year, City Council passed an ordinance that would put a hold on vehicle registrations for which there are outstanding red light camera fines. The city’s ability to do this is contingent on cooperation from the county, as it is the Tax Assessor’s office that handles vehicle registrations. As the city prepares to vote on a contract to reimburse the Tax Assessor’s office for its efforts in flagging those records, Commissioners Court has thrown a wrench into the plan.

Last month, Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee expressed reluctance about the contract and asked that it be removed from the agenda for further study. Tax Assessor-Collector Leo Vasquez had asked commissioners to approve a five-year, $36,000-a-year contract with the city to reimburse his office for processing the flagged records, telling the court he expected few citizens would be turned away.

The Texas Transportation Code gives the county tax collector the option to refuse to register a vehicle if a red-light camera citation is owed, but only if the owner has been given two notices demanding payment. In addition, Texas law allows refusal of vehicle registration if the owner has an outstanding warrant for failure to appear to pay a city traffic fine, or owes the county money for taxes, fees or fines. Currently, the county only blocks vehicle registrations for motorists who have delinquent tollroad fines.

[…]

[Precinct 2 Commissioner Sylvia] Garcia said she is concerned that residents whose registrations are blocked could face penalties if they are ticketed for an expired registration.

“All it does if you tack on fees, you’re going to make if more difficult to collect and right now is not the time to be beating someone to death with fines and fees,” said Garcia, former chief of Houston municipal courts.

Emphasis mine. I appreciate Commissioner Garcia’s concern, but if it is such a concern, isn’t it also a concern for toll road scofflaws? Harris County is mighty vigilant about collecting the fines it is owed, which can be substantial in some cases, and it has the authority to arrest those who don’t pay. Does this mean that the Court thinks that now is also not the time to enforce the collection of EZ Tag violations as well? Or is that different somehow?

One more thing:

County Judge Ed Emmett questioned why the county was being asked to block registration only of those with unpaid red-light camera citations, and not those who failed to pay tickets issued by police.

George Hammerlein, director of inter-governmental affairs with the tax office, said the data from red-light camera citations is easier to use than criminal court data, which can be difficult to determine whether a conviction is final.

“Other counties do it and it works quite well,” he said. “Montgomery County even checks to see if you’ve paid your property taxes. We do it for the Harris County Toll Road Authority — if you don’t pay your toll road fines, you’ll get a flag and can’t register your car till you pay them.”

It’s interesting to me that the Tax Assessor’s office is now on board with this idea. They had expressed skepticism about it when it was first proposed. I wonder if the departure of Paul Bettencourt had anything to do with that, or if it’s just the case that the city managed to answer all of their questions. More background on this matter here and from KUHF, KTRK, and Grits.

Harris County voter registration issues get national coverage

Lou Dubose, onetime editor of the Texas Observer and Tom DeLay biographer has written a story for the Washington Spectator about the shenanigans in the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office with voter registration. You can read it here (PDF), thanks to the Lone Star Project. There’s some information in there I hadn’t seen before, and it’s a good overview if you’re just tuning in now. Check it out.

Hammerlein, too

The Chron confirms the Lone Star Project report about Ed Johnson being reassigned in the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office, and adds on to it.

Two Harris County officials at the center of an ongoing dispute over what the Texas Democratic Party claims was an orchestrated effort to purge thousands of voters for partisan political reasons have been reassigned to duties outside the voter registration office, Tax Assessor-Collector Leo Vasquez said Friday.

Vasquez insisted the removal of Ed Johnson and George Hammerlein from voter registration duties was part of a larger office reorganization and was not related to a federal lawsuit by the Texas Democratic Party challenging the way the office handles the voter rolls.

Johnson’s impartiality has been questioned by Democratic Party officials, who noted that the associate voter registrar also was a paid director for Computer Data Systems, a private company owned by state Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, that sells voter registration data to Republican candidates.

“It has absolutely nothing to do with any outside influence,“ Vasquez said of the personnel shuffle. “Two of the people in the voter registration office, I thought their skill sets were better used elsewhere.”

The reorganization, he said, involves 20 employees.

Mighty convenient for this sort of thing to happen now and to have nothing to do with any pending legal dispute, that’s all I can say. Getting those two away from voter registration data did need to happen, though, so as far as that goes it’s all good.

LSP says Johnson reassigned from voter registration duties

Here’s their report.

The Lone Star Project has learned that Republican Tax Assessor-Collector Leo Vasquez has reassigned Associate Voter Registrar Ed Johnson from voter registration duties to a communications role. Johnson was exposed by the Lone Star Project as “the inside man” to Republican elected officials, particularly State Rep. Dwayne Bohac (HD138-Houston).

Vasquez’s actions appear to be a cynical attempt to distract attention from an ongoing lawsuit in which Vasquez is seeking to withhold documents and other records that would likely confirm that his office improperly rejected as many as 70,000 voter registration applications and improperly handled more than 1,200 provisional ballots.

I haven’t seen this reported anywhere else as yet, so it’s an unconfirmed report. But not a surprising one.

Where’d that driver’s license data come from?

The Lone Star Project revisits the matter of Ed Johnson and Dwayne Bohac and their cozy relationship as business partners with a real in at the Harris County Tax Assessor’s office.

Last month, the Lone Star Project revealed that Harris County Associate Voter Registrar, Ed Johnson, is a paid employee of a GOP political consulting firm, Campaign Data Systems (CDS), owned by Republican State Representative Dwayne Bohac.  On the firm’s website Bohac boasted that the CDS voter data file is enhanced by information culled from “driver license” records.  The contact name provided to obtain the data is Ed Johnson, Bohac’s business partner AND the Harris County Associate Voter Registrar. How did CDS get the drivers license records? It appears that Bohac obtained the records improperly by way of his “man on the inside” Ed Johnson.  Here are the relevant facts and documents:

  • Under Texas law, official driver license records can be obtained ONLY from the Department of Public Safety (DPS) after paying a considerable fee and signing an agreement that the records will not be sold or given to other individuals or organizations.
  • Documents obtained from the DPS by the Lone Star Project confirm that the Harris County Elections office obtained and received regular updates of Texas driver license records. When obtaining the records, Ed Johnson himself signed an agreement on behalf Harris County that he WOULD NOT make the information available to any other individual or organization.
  • The DPS also confirmed that neither Campaign Data Systems, Dwayne Bohac nor any CDS clients individually requested or received driver license records at any time.
  • The only direct link between driver license records and Campaign Data Systems is Ed Johnson, who appears to have improperly used driver license records from the Harris County Elections Office to enhance voter data sold by Campaign Data Systems.

Did Dwayne Bohac and Ed Johnson break the law?
Dwayne Bohac must either produce evidence that CDS obtained Texas Drivers License records from a source other than the Harris County Elections office OR admit that he lied to clients and did not enhance their voter data with driver license records. Otherwise, Dwayne Bohac and Ed Johnson conspired to illegally obtain Texas Driver License records and use them for commercial political purposes which is a violation under the Texas Transportation Code, Sec. 730.013, and the federal Driver Privacy Protection Act of 1994.

You can click over to see the documents themselves. More will be coming next week.

Bacarisse, too

Rick Casey jumps on the Ed Johnson bandwagon, and he starts off with the information that former District Clerk Charles Bacarisse was doing the same kind of moonlighting as Johnson was.

Bacarisse hired out as a $4,500-a-month consultant to a courier service and a company that served court papers on parents who failed to make child-support payments.

Apparently, the $135,000 a year we paid him wasn’t enough.

Bacarisse said there was nothing unethical about the arrangement, but a competing process server said she had turned down his offer (for a price) to help her by recommending her to lawyers who need those services.

He denied it, but the sense lingered that we had a district clerk who was on the take.

I have more sympathy for Ed Johnson. He has to get by on the $85,092 we taxpayers give him as associate voter registrar at the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office.

I’m sure this was public knowledge at some point, but I either never saw it or I’d forgotten it. If nothing else, you’d think that the extra money on top of the taxpayer-funded salary would be enough to frost a lot of people. I mean, $54K a year ($4,500 a month) is a pretty decent income, especially for what was surely part-time work. A similar arrangement in the private sector would likely be grounds for termination.

As for Johnson, Casey makes the someday-the-other-team-will-be-in-charge counter to Vasquez’s defense of Johnson, then notes that Harris County isn’t like the other counties.

Let’s do like Bexar and Dallas counties and set up a non-partisan office to handle voter registration and elections.

Chapter 31 of the Texas Election Code makes it easy. Commissioners Court simply has to vote to set up a county election commission, made up of the county judge, the county clerk, the tax assessor-collector and the county chairs of the political parties.

Together, they hire an election administrator and give him or her a budget to handle voter registration and to conduct elections.

This is a bit more rational than having the tax assessor-collector do the registration, which fell to that office only because it collected the poll tax that was then considered useful in keeping irresponsible poor people from voting.

If we had that law, the moonlighting that Vasquez thinks is perfectly acceptable could send Johnson to jail for a year.

The law makes it a Class A misdemeanor for an elections administrator or any full-time staff member in a county of more than a million if he “makes a political contribution … or publicly supports or opposes a candidate for public office or a measure to be voted on at an election.”

So, Leo, don’t you think that if the Legislature says it’s a crime for a nonpartisan voter registrar to support candidates, it might be a good policy for you to prohibit it as well?

Separating out the voter registration function from the Tax Assessor’s office is an idea that’s come up before, and would be meritorious even without the politicization of the current setup. I don’t sense any movement to make it happen, however, so the next best thing is a Tax Assessor’s office that actually tries to avoid the appearance of impropriety. It’s not so much to ask, is it?

TDP responds to Vasquez

From Saturday’s op-ed pages, here’s the Texas Democratic Party’s response, written by the TDP’s legal counsel Chad Dunn, to Leo Vasquez in the matter of Ed Johnson.

Johnson’s conflict of interest doesn’t pass the smell test, and during the course of our lawsuit, we’ve found evidence that improper partisanship may have affected the conduct of elections in Harris County.

For example:

1. Problems with Johnson’s provisional ballot operation were pointed out last November by a Republican, Jim Harding, who chaired the Harris County Ballot Board. Provisional ballot affidavits were not processed by the tax office until five days after the deadline required by state law, forcing the ballot board to review most of the more than 7,000 provisional ballots in just 24 hours.

2. Harding complained that tax office employees altered official election records with white-out and corrective tape in violation of federal law. Sworn depositions later revealed that Ed Johnson had personally reviewed, and possibly changed, the recommendations of career staff regarding the counting of provisional ballots that included the names of Johnson’s Republican clients.

3. As reported by KHOU-TV and the Houston Chronicle last October, 11,350 timely voter registration applications were not processed in time to be put on the voter rolls by the first day of early voting in 2008, as required by state law, a problem not experienced in any other Texas county.

4. During the 2008 election cycle, Harris County rejected almost 70,000 voter registration applications. In Dallas County, where applications are processed by nonpartisan election officials, only 1,183 applications were rejected. Harris County has refused to make the database that tracks these rejected applications available for inspection.

5. During the same time period, Harris County removed 200,000 names — or 10 percent of the county’s voters — from the voter registration list for unknown reasons.

6. Additional evidence reveals that voter registration applicants who applied months before the election did not receive letters notifying them of their rejection status or asking for more information until Election Day or days after, another violation of state law that may have denied many the right to vote.

These problems are not “frivolous” matters.

Just thought I’d mention that the Democrats have had pretty good luck in recent years with election-related lawsuits. It was a lawsuit filed by several losing candidates after the 2002 election that led to the revelations about campaign finance violations by TAB and TRMPAC, which in turn led to a bunch of indictments, some convictions, and the eventual downfall of Tom DeLay. It was another Democratic lawsuit after DeLay’s resignation and withdrawal from the ballot in 2006 that forced the Republicans to run a write-in candidate in that election. That lawsuit was, naturally, declared “frivolous” by Republican Party of Texas Chair Tina Benkiser. That doesn’t mean this one’s a winner as well, but all things considered I like our odds.

Saturday video break: Who are you working for, Dwayne?

I know I’ve been using these for mostly silly and/or amusing music videos, but given recent developments, I figured this was a good fit for the day.

Now we just need someone to do something similar for Leo Vasquez.

Leo’s response

Here, for the record, is Harris County Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez’s response to the Ed Johnson business. Basically, he denies everything, admits to nothing, and makes counter-accusations, certainly a time-honored technique when under attack. I’ll stipulate that the charges against Ed Johnson are being made by partisan groups. I find it rather admirable that Vasquez is so willing to go to bat for an employee like this. But man, if he can’t or won’t see how much this looks like a conflict of interest, I don’t know what to say. The voters will sort it out next year, I guess. I think Campos is right that swing voters will see this for what it is. I just hope the resources to make sure they’re aware of it are there.

Chron opines on Ed Johnson

The Chron follows up its story on Ed Johnson, the local GOP’s ace in the hole in the Tax Assessor’s office, with an editorial that recaps the story and gently chides Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez.

Given the recent history of his office, perhaps it’s not surprising that Vasquez would see nothing amiss in having a staffer responsible for voter registration involved in partisan campaign work on the side.

When the tax assessor stands for re-election next year, voters will have the opportunity to express their own views of such activities. In the meantime, Vasquez should order Johnson to choose between his public and private gigs and eliminate the appearance of a conflict of interest.

I think the Tax Assessor’s office deserves no benefit of the doubt, and as such Johnson should be let go, but making him choose between one job and the other would be minimally acceptable. For sure, the current setup cannot continue. It’s up to you, Leo – do you want to run a clean office or not?

What about Dwayne?

The Lone Star Project turns its attention to Ed Johnson‘s partner, State Rep. Dwayne Bohac.

[Friday], the Lone Star Project formally submitted open records requests of Dwayne Bohac, Tax Assessor Collector Leo Vasquez, Harris County DA Pat Lykos -a CDS client, and others. Given the refusal of Harris County Republican officials and Dwayne Bohac to respond responsibly to media inquiries about Ed Johnson, they must be compelled to produce records before evidence is destroyed or otherwise withheld from public or legal scrutiny.

[…]

To this point, Dwayne Bohac has said nothing to the press about his company, his activities or his employees, despite all being implicated in the scandal.  Bohac owes Harris County voters answers to at least the following questions.

Why does Bohac only sell to Harris County campaigns?
CDS claims to sell voter lists and software services, which should be applicable all over the state.  However, CDS only sells to Republican campaigns in Harris County. Is this because Ed Johnson is only available to help in Harris County?

What Harris County voter information has Bohac and Johnson obtained?
The Campaign Data Systems’ website claimed that, “Most data providers allow you to target using only registered voter data and voter history. However, CDS gives you two additional lists—drivers license data and property tax records.” (See the website) Ed Johnson’s position the with the Harris County Tax Assessor Collector, who oversees the voter registration department, may give him access to property tax data, vehicle registration data and other information in addition to the voter data for which he has full access. Bohac should tell Harris County residents what public data he has obtained and where he obtained it.

Why is Dwayne Bohac routing money through Decide Consulting?
Dwayne Bohac has never paid Campaign Data Systems from his campaign account.   Instead, he has suspiciously paid Decide Consulting more than $27,000 since 2004. Decide Consulting was founded by another Bohac business partner, David Moise.  This firm is described as a, “software management and consulting business.” Decide has no other political business listed on its website or on Texas Ethics Commission filings. These payments may be an effort by Bohac to steer profits to his business and business associates, while circumventing Texas Ethics Opinion 35 which prohibits payments to a business when the candidate owns more than a 10% stake for more than actual expenditures. As the opinion says, “the business may not make any profit on such a transaction.”

Good questions. I wonder when someone other than Pat “Conflict? What conflict?” Lykos or Leo Vasquez’s spokesperson will answer any of them. Campos has more.

Chron reports on Ed Johnson

Here’s their story about Ed Johnson and his questionable side venture as a Republican consultant. It doesn’t add much to what we already know, but it does get some local reaction, including from Johnson’s boss, Harris County Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez.

Leo Vasquez, Harris County tax assessor-collector and voter registrar, issued a statement that dismissed complaints that Johnson’s job, which can include approving or rejecting voter applications, conflicts with his side business.

“Ed Johnson is an honorable man,” Vasquez said. “It is slanderous and absolutely reprehensible to suggest without evidence that he is involved in inappropriate activity with regard to voter registration in Harris County.”

Vasquez’s spokesman, Fred King, said Johnson has been in this type of business since the mid-1990s, so his involvement in voter registration data was no secret.

“His knowledge of compiling lists and his programming expertise are the reasons Paul Bettencourt (Vasquez’s predecessor) hired him,” King said. “Vasquez may have heard of Ed’s outside business before taking office since many candidates and campaign workers knew of it.”

If it weren’t for the fact that Bettencourt did so much, especially in recent years, to politicize the Tax Assessor’s office, Johnson’s moonlighting might not be a big deal. If it weren’t for the fact that there had been so many complaints, especially last year, about the way voter registration forms and provisional ballots were being handled, Johnson’s moonlighting might not be a big deal. If it weren’t for the fact that Johnson had spent so much time parroting Republican fairy tales about the need for voter ID legislation in testimony before the Lege, Johnson’s moonlighting might not be a big deal. Put it all together, though, and you come to the inescapable conclusion that Johnson’s moonlighting is in fact a big deal. Vasquez needs to get his head out of the sand about it.

Though it should be noted that he’s not the only Republican elected official doing the ostrich thing:

Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos’ campaign paid more than $7,000 last year to CDS. She said late Wednesday her campaign hired CDS for targeted campaign mailers but she did not know about Johnson’s job with the county.

She insisted she saw no compromise of the elections office’s mission.

“I saw no conflict,” Lykos said.

So if it turns out that one of your ADAs has a side gig with a jury consultant who does a lot of work for criminal defense attorneys, that’ll be all right with you, Pat? I’m just checking.