Thursday, December 11, 2008

Yesterday's Bettenquit Follies

Houston's "blizzard" kept me from attending the TDP presser and from posting this update yesterday. Alan Bernstein was there and files this report (as they say on teevee). At the end of the excerpt are a couple of emphasized portions:

"Mr. Bettencourt's late-night resignation announcement is his attempt to avoid bringing to light the inner workings of his office over the past several years and still does not ensure that the problems surrounding Harris County voter registration will be resolved," the state (Democratic) party said Wednesday in a statement distributed by Houston lawyer Chad Dunn.

Republican Bettencourt, the tax assessor-collector, said it was ridiculous to suggest he and his staff purposely foiled voter registrations or that his resignation was triggered by the lawsuit.


Dunn, the Democrats' lawyer, said the lawsuit was expanded to, among other things, include as plaintiffs four people whose voter registration applications were stymied by what the party calls the county's "unlawful and hyper-technical voters registration activities." The lawsuit alleges Bettencourt's staff has disenfranchised voters by using unwarranted technical reasons for rejecting their registration applications.

Bettencourt said the four were rejected for routine, justifiable reasons involving their paperwork, and that the registration system in the county works well.

"You are going to have mistakes made," he said. "What you do is fix them."

The bipartisan ballot board that decided whether to accept provisional ballots cast by voters whose names were missing from the Nov. 4 rolls accepted some that Bettencourt's staff had classified as incomplete. His staff was unable to get thousands of registrations onto the rolls before early voting.

Bettencourt apparently still will have to give pre-trial testimony in the lawsuit after this month and will be represented by the new county attorney, Democrat Vince Ryan.

That first part above is why I believe that a new tax assessor/collector/voter registrar deserves to be relieved of the VR portion of their job title. As explosive as the legal complaint of malfeasance is, the fact that thousands of people didn't get to vote because their paperwork (a postcard, mind you) couldn't get processed in time reveals a incompetence of the rankest order on the part of Bettencourt and his staff. Put aside the partisan rancor and even the alleged criminal mischief for a moment: can a new department head get this job done more effectively than an incumbent with several years of experience at it? I'd have to be pessimistic, no matter how talented that person may be.

Bettencourt kept the inner workings of the voter registration process as secretive as he could. The FNG is going to have to do many things better, and one is to open up the process to observers -- media, political party, and otherwise -- in a significant way. Not for nothing, but Beverly Kaufman has a few cycles of experience dealing with HCDP observers like myself and John Behrman (and others before us) analyzing the county's vote counting -- with us suggesting changes, arguing for more security, and so forth. She has -- grudgingly at times -- moved closer and closer to our requests for improved e-Slate integrity, including L&A and parallel testing, tightened chain-of-custody security, and more. She hasn't done every we have asked; she fights us some and slow-walks us too much, but she has certainly demonstrated far more openness and allowed more "sunshine" into the vote tabulation process conducted by her staff than Bettencourt ever had a nightmare about.

If commissioners court intends to seriously address the mess that is voter registration in Harris County, it will remove the task from the purview of the tax assessor/collector's office and give it to the county clerk.

As for Vince Ryan defending Paul Bettencourt against a TDP lawsuit, that is going to be comedy gold down the road.

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