Sunday, June 17, 2007

From the central counting office (not quite a live-blog)

Councilwoman-elect Melissa Noriega and her husband Rick.

4:00 p.m. Saturday, June 16: I arrive downtown at the Harris County administration building and proceed to the elections office on the 4th floor. I will be the Noriega campaign's poll watcher, which means I get to observe all of the operations of the county election officials as they process the vote. I meet Beverley Kaufman, county clerk and others and they begin tabulating the absentee and early voting results.

Two early voting locations list a report of broken seals on DREs. I document these carefully, but broken seals are not necessarily evidence of malicious activity. The seals are flimsy -- they have the thickness of a small paperclip and are similar to the kind you would see on your electricity meter, so they could break simply from normal handling (never mind sloppy or rough).

On the other hand, a missing seal or a seal whose serial number doesn't match its accompanying records would be evidence that might trigger a felony vote-tampering investigation. There is no evidence of anything like this witnessed by me; the county officials are experienced, thorough and committed to quality control.

5:35 p.m.: The absentee ballots favor Morales slightly -- by about 70 votes out of more than 5,000 -- but Noriega amasses a 1,300-vote margin in the early ballots, and takes a lead (54.5% to 45.5%) she will never relinquish. These results will not be made public until after the polls close at 7 p.m. Our cellphones are silenced, and leaving the room even to go to the bathroom is strongly discouraged. There is a sheriff's deputy present (for any variety of order enforcement scenarios).

7:00 p.m.: Polls close, the results above are posted online. In the Gadget Age, most everyone who cares gets the count from the website now; there is only one media representative in the adjacent press room. He's a very young man from the Chronicle who looks no more thrilled about spending his Saturday night in a downtown office than the rest of us.

7:15 p.m.: The tabulators downtown touch base with the county's subordinate officials collecting the mobile ballot boxes at the George R Brown convention center; this is where the precinct judges around the city are arriving with their e-Slates, from which is extracted the computer cards which are read and the results fed back to us. These updates continue until ...

7:59 p.m.: ... the results from 20 precincts are posted, showing Noriega with about a 1.400-vote lead out of 13,635 ballots counted. The counters continue to post results online about every fifteen minutes, and the raw numbers naturally go up but the end result doesn't change. Melissa is cruising to an easy win.

9:23 p.m.: With 80% of all voting precincts counted, Noriega has 12,453 votes to Morales' 9,910. The percentages are 55.7 -- 44.3.

The first interesting and-not-in-a-good-way development: there is one precinct's ballot box unaccounted for, and reports from the field indicate that the precinct judge is as well. Attempts are initiated to determine his whereabouts, involving the afore-mentioned sheriff's deputies. He was last reported leaving his home at 7:45, dropping his wife off before driving into town from one of the far west exurbs.

10:04 p.m.: Almost in time for the evening news, 99.61% of precincts (256 of 257) show Noriega still holding 55.5% of the tally. In the nation's fourth largest city, with a population of four million -- greater than that of 16 states -- an at-large representative gets elected with less than 25,000 votes cast.

10:45 p.m.: That AWOL judge and his ballot box show up at last, and his 100+ votes complete the count. One worthy note: Houston residents residing in Fort Bend county go Noriega 164-44. That's the absolutely final, fitting stick in the eye to Tom DeLay (it was Shelley Gibbs who resigned this city council seat to sit in the Hammer's chair for a month before Nick Lampson took it over).

I can't wait to work a presidential; I'll get to stay up 'til dawn providing you with such stimulating after-the-fact commentary.

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