Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Bettencourt sued over provisional ballots *update*

Final Update: Alas, the results don't change. But the TDP will press forward on Bettencourt's shady actions...

(Wednesday morning at 10 a.m.), at the federal district court hearing regarding the disposition of provisional ballots in Harris County, tax assessor/collector Paul Bettencourt’s attorneys told the court that his office had processed all of the provisional ballots by 7:00 a.m. Wednesday morning. Additionally, Bettencourt informed the media that he had actually finished the ballot process the afternoon before the hearing. However, the Harris County Ballot Board received additional ballots as late as 4:00 p.m. after the hearing, in direct conflict with what Bettencourt’s attorney told U.S. district judge Gray Miller.

"For some time now, Paul Bettencourt’s unusual effort to reject legitimate voter registration applications has raised public concerns, but misleading a court of law for partisan purposes would be beneath contempt," said Texas Democratic Party Chairman Boyd Richie. "Whether Paul Bettencourt is incompetent or indifferent, neither is a legitimate excuse."

Furthermore, we have received reports that Bettencourt had a private meeting with Harris County Republican Party chair Jared Woodfill the Wednesday after Election Day, after which Bettencourt’s processing of provisional ballots slowed to a near halt, despite a state law that requires complete processing of provisional ballots by the Friday after Election Day. Then yesterday, at least two witnesses observed Woodfill and an unidentified Anglo male in a private meeting with the Republican ballot board chairman, Jim Harding, between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m., just hours after the District Court assumed jurisdiction of the matter. Additionally, we have received reports Bettencourt personally called Harding and berated him regarding his comments in today’s Houston Chronicle.

In response to these reports, the Texas Democratic Party General Counsel has sent a letter to Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill asking him to report his actions to Judge Miller.

Further developments in future postings. More at Off the Kuff.

: Bettencourt got his job done, so the court action scheduled for this morning was rendered moot. But the implications on two judicial races hang in the balance, with the last votes being counted even as I post this:

In a miniature version of the 2000 Florida vote drama, election officials prepared to work late tonight toward counting the last leftover votes that could switch outcomes in two Harris County judicial elections.

The tedious work lurched forward when county voter registrar Paul Bettencourt delivered his reports on about 7,000 ballots that were cast by people not listed on the Election Day voter rolls. Some of those residents had been omitted from registration records by mistake, and their votes will be added to last week's totals.

Bettencourt's move led Democratic Party officials to drop their request today for a judge to order him to complete the tallies and open his staff's work to monitors. However, Democrats said they will press ahead next year with the part of their lawsuit that accuses Bettencourt, a Republican, of illegally rejecting voter registration applications.

He sent his work on the 7,000 or so provisional ballots to a bipartisan ballot board that will decide which ones will be added to the Nov. 4 vote total. About 1,400 of the 7,000 are expected to qualify for addition to elections for countywide offices, election officials said, in addition to about 400 ballots sent by overseas voters.

If those ballots contain votes on judicial elections, they could reverse the outcome in two contests where fewer than 600 votes separated the winners and losers as of last week. ...

Democratic candidate Goodwille Pierre, who trailed Republican state District Judge Joseph "Tad" Halbach by fewer than 600 votes, said he had faith the new totals will make him a new judge.

"I believe it will definitely show that we are ahead," he said.

In the other closest race, Republican state District Judge Elizabeth Ray trailed Democratic challenger Josefina Muniz Rendon by 135 votes.

After a court hearing today on the Democrats' lawsuit, their lawyer, Chad Dunn, implied that Bettencourt had dragged his feet on processing the provisional ballots as the deadline for counting them neared.

"We are disappointed ... that it took a lawsuit to get Mr. Bettencourt to do his job," he said. "The Texas Democratic Party will consistently stand up for the voters' right to cast a ballot and have it be counted."

Alan Bernsten's report from last night is in full below. I won't comment on it for now except to note that I don't expect to be a party to this myself, but know some who will:

Texas Democratic Party officials are asking a federal judge in Houston to block what they call illegal moves by Harris County voter registrar Paul Bettencourt as the last few votes are added to the totals from the Nov. 4 election.

U.S. District Judge Gray Miller was scheduled to consider the complaint against Republican Bettencourt at 10 a.m. today.

Bettencourt, who was re-elected last week as county tax assessor-collector, denied the allegations in general Tuesday. He said he had to withhold specific comments until he read the lawsuit and consulted with outgoing County Attorney Mike Stafford.

With two judicial races in potential limbo because they were decided by a few hundred votes, the lawsuit focuses on about 7,000 ballots that were cast before and during Election Day but have yet to be verified as ballots that can be added to the totals.

Called "provisional ballots," they were cast by voters whose names were not properly listed on voter rolls but who signed affidavits saying they nevertheless had properly registered.

A few hundred by-mail ballots sent by overseas voters also have been processed since the election. Those ballots could have been counted under state law if they arrived by Sunday.

No results from the overseas and accepted provisional ballots have been made public yet. The mailed ballots generally favor Republican candidates while the provisionals are expected to favor Democratic candidates, according to several political experts.

Since last week's election, Bettencourt's voter registration staff has been checking those provisional ballots against records and reported on each one to a ballot board, whose members are appointed by political parties. Technically, the board decides which votes will be added to the totals before the election results are made official by Commissioners Court, which is scheduled to accept the results Monday.

But, the Democratic officials said in the lawsuit, Bettencourt is providing incorrect information to the board, delaying the counting, refusing to let in observers and has illegally denied voter registrations.

The list of Democratic plaintiffs includes lawyer Goodwille Pierre, who trailed Republican state District Judge Joseph "Tad" Halbach by fewer than 600 votes in the election. In another civil court race, Republican Judge Elizabeth Ray trailed Democratic challenger Josefina Muniz Rendon by fewer than 200 votes.

About 1 million votes were cast in each of the two judicial races in which the opponents are currently separated by less than 1,000 votes.

Bettencourt said his staff would be done with the 7,000 or so ballots by late Tuesday — proof, he said, that he was not keeping the ballot board from making decisions by today, the flexible counting deadline suggested by state law.

Bettencourt said he gave a Democratic representative, Collyn Peddie, a tour of his provisional ballot processing system last week but refused on the advice of the Secretary of State's Office to allow anyone to serve as a monitor.

In an affidavit attached to the lawsuit, Peddie cast doubt on Bettencourt's system based on her one-hour presence. She said she saw provisional ballots "set aside" despite notes showing they had been cast by voters who had registered to vote at state Department of Public Safety offices.

The suit charges that Bettencourt may also be improperly blocking votes only because voters had listed commercial, rather than residential addresses and had not been given a chance to explain any discrepancy.

Bettencourt acknowledged to the Chronicle in July that a few voters' registrations had been delayed because they lived in new dwellings previously listed on property rolls as non-residential.

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