Bet You Can't Vote for Just One!

Beaten in his judicial race, Justice Eric Andell has vaulted to the top of Democratic picks to run for county judge in 2002.
Deron Neblett

With swarms of writers from the likes of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Miami Herald analyzing every electoral oddity in the political hothouse of Florida, The Insider just couldn't resist attempting the same exercise at the Harris County courthouse.

Just imagine, and it admittedly takes a major suspension of belief, that George W. Bush and Al Gore ran neck and neck in Texas and the election hung on returns from Houston. If the media microscope zeroed in on the results here from the same ticky-tacky punch-card machines that caused controversy in Broward and Miami-Dade, what might be revealed?

For starters, talking heads on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC would be puzzling over why Houston Hispanics are apparently nine times more likely to vote for two or more presidential candidates than people in River Oaks, Tanglewood and west Houston. Sample Hispanic precincts collected ballots with multiple votes for president at a rate five times as high as inner-city polling places in the Heights and Montrose. Hispanics had double-vote ballots more than three times higher than the overall county average.

Explanations from Houston election experts range from first-time voter unfamiliarity with U.S. voting techniques to more sinister hints of ballot manipulation by precinct officials. But the most common response to our statistics was blank surprise -- apparently no one has seriously studied the phenomenon of overvotes among Hispanics here. (Click here to review raw data in Word format.)

An overvote occurs when a voter punches the ballot for more than one candidate in a race, disqualifying the vote in that particular contest. An undervote happens when the counting machine is unable to detect any vote in a particular contest on the ballot. In that case, the specter of partially punched ballots with dimpled or pregnant chads raises a by-now painfully familiar face. Under Texas law, such ballots can be -- and have been -- tallied through hand recounts in close races.

The Hispanic overvotes were among several electoral oddities revealed by an Insider survey of 47 precincts selected to reflect the ethnic and class diversity of Houston. Although the number of ballot irregularities tended to increase in minority and low-income boxes, there were some exceptions.

Low-income African-Americans showed the highest degree of voter discipline and organization. The overwhelming tendency of blacks to vote Democratic resulted in massive numbers who punched a straight-party ticket, largely eliminating the possibility of voter error in individual races. A good example is Precinct 582, where 86 percent of the voters voted straight Democratic. Not surprisingly, the box went for Gore-Lieberman by a nearly unanimous 98.7 percent. Still, 11 souls somehow failed to vote for president, more than the paltry nine votes that Bush-Cheney corralled.

In middle-income black boxes, the percentage of Democratic votes dropped slightly, but the voter error rate remained about the same. Undervotes and overvotes were about a third higher than the county average, and significantly higher than upper-income precincts on the city's west side.

It was in the six Hispanic precincts that The Insider sampled that overvotes and undervotes reached their citywide peaks. Out of 6,500 ballots from those boxes, 289 did not have valid votes for president. Of 12,784 ballots in upper-income precincts sampled, only 184 voters failed to cast a valid choice for president. The overvote difference was particularly striking. In a pool of voters twice as large, the silk-stocking precincts registered only 38 overvotes, compared to 134 by their Hispanic counterparts.

Something was clearly at work boosting the Hispanic overvotes. But what?

Political consultant Marc Campos speculates that recent voter registration campaigns in the Hispanic community are bringing in large numbers of first-time voters unfamiliar with both the voting machines and the rules. "I would guess that ours has the biggest new citizen community," says Campos, "and maybe some of these folks aren't that ballot-savvy."

Rice Dean of Social Sciences Bob Stein blames the problem on a combination of factors.

"Hispanic voters tend to be undermobilized," explains Stein. "Their turnout rates are lower, while blacks' are higher. And they don't have the traditional organizational base in the churches that blacks do. Throw into that the language barrier and recent immigration, and you've got all the conditions to create voter error."

State Representative Joe Moreno is the former precinct judge for east Houston's Precinct 62, which had a very high combined presidential overvote and undervote of 4.42 percent. He notes that Hispanics sometimes split loyalties and vote for both candidates in races, particularly if both have Spanish surnames.

"In the presidential race you had a lot of folks who are hard-core Democrats," speculates Moreno, "but yet because of the name ID that Bush has here in Texas, they might have gone in and voted for both candidates."  

Harris County elections supervisor Tony Sirvello says he was unaware of the high overvotes in Hispanic precincts. "To me, that would indicate a lack of knowledge of how to operate the equipment," Sirvello says. "Although, I have had people tell me they will overvote a race so that nobody can take their card afterwards and go in and punch a vote for them on a race they didn't vote on." Sirvello attributes that to voter suspicion that ballots might be tampered with after the polls close.

At least one observer sees overvotes as a Democratic conspiracy directed against Republican candidates. In a letter to the editor published in The Wall Street Journal last week, C. Moore identified himself as a longtime GOP precinct judge here and claimed overvotes in Harris County minority boxes amount to vote fraud. He said Democratic precinct officials can invalidate Republican votes by punching out chads for Democrats as they take the ballots to the election center.

The problem with Moore's theory is that since Texas was never in doubt for Bush, why would a precinct official take the risk of committing vote fraud when it would have no effect on the outcome?

Sirvello hopes a computerized touch-screen voting system can be installed in Harris County in time for the next municipal election. He says trial runs with that system, which provides on-screen prompts warning voters of overvotes, should cut down on the problem.

Harris County Democratic Chairwoman Sue Schechter isn't so sure.

"For people who have not seen a computer, it's going to be even more confusing," she contends. "If punch cards need a lot of education, just think about a touch screen for people who do not use ATM cards and have never used a computer and won't have a clue." Schechter suggests that the simple pencil-mark ballots used in Travis County have a very low margin of error.

Whatever technology is adopted, Campaign Strategies associate Robert Jara is sure it will be an improvement. "I don't know whether electronic stuff will scare some people or not, but it can't be any more fearful than this punch-card deal."

Anyone who has been watching the electoral circus in Florida the last few weeks will have a hard time disagreeing with that sentiment.

Hot Prospect

Justice Eric Andell may have lost his re-election bid to the First Court of Appeals last month, but he emerges from the defeat with his political future intact. In a presidential year dominated by the GOP in Texas, Andell won a majority of the Harris County vote. He lost to opponent Terry Jennings because of votes from other counties in his judicial district. The showing has made Andell the top-mentioned Democrat to run for county judge, should incumbent Robert Eckels choose to go for a statewide office in 2002.

Democrat County Chair Schechter looked at the postelection returns and proclaimed Andell the best candidate: "Did well on the west side, did well in Democratic boxes, brought in independent and Republican votes. He's just a popular guy."

Andell routinely ran 20 percent better than Gore-Lieberman in conservative areas of the city. A stunning example is Precinct 217 in River Oaks, where the Bush-Cheney ticket took 73 percent of the vote. In the same returns, Andell lost to Jennings by a thin 3 percent margin.

If Eckels vacates the county judgeship, Andell political consultant Nancy Sims says her candidate is ready to hit the trail again. "Most of the people who supported Eric and did personal endorsement letters are truly committed to him as an individual," says Sims. She believes that support is transferable to a higher-profile contest like county judge.

Such a campaign might pit Andell against another popular pol, Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt, an ambitious Republican on his own quest to win over Democrats.

If those two collide, nice guys would finish both last -- and first -- in the race.

The Return of Mr. Jones

With Councilman Chris Bell all but a declared candidate for mayor next year, a longtime city veteran is on board to help run his campaign.

Dan Jones, who recently weathered a misdemeanor charge of violating state bid regulations in the purchase of those infamous leather chairs for City Council, confirms he's on the Bell team.

"I fully expect that he will announce for mayor, and I fully expect that I'm going to be working with him a lot," Jones says. "Fortunately I have some time on my hands, and I'll be right there in the thick of it."

The district attorney's office dropped the case against Jones and girlfriend Janet King after prosecutors determined that the facts did not merit the charges. Jones then retired from the city and happily reports that his pension more than meets his financial needs.  

Jones joined the city staff under then-mayor Jim McConn in the late '70s and served as agenda director under mayors Kathy Whitmire, Bob Lanier and Lee Brown.

He expects to work on developing issues for the upcoming Bell campaign. Asked whether that includes unearthing all the skeletons that Mayor Brown might like to keep buried, Jones laughs.

"I have the map," he replies, "and I still have the shovel."

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