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Fixing the Vote

One bill would knock out punch-card voting.
Deron Neblett

Spring's just around the corner, and election reform's a fertile topic. So state senators and representatives gathered for the 77th legislative session are furiously sowing seed bills they hope will germinate into election code laws signed by Governor Rick Perry.

Some plans, like banning those now-hated punch-card ballot machines, will likely get serious consideration. Others, including a plan to make lawmakers pass a state minimum skills test before taking office, can at best expect a few laughs before a quick trip to the recycling bin. When it comes to Texas legislators, it seems, accountability refers to the balance in their campaign accounts rather than job performance serving the public.

Among bills filed for the upcoming session are proposals to eliminate straight-party voting as a ballot option and to bar unopposed judges from accepting campaign contributions from supporters. There's a plan to crack down on the use of nonprofit organizations for political purposes, and a modest proposal by a Houston state rep to give young adolescents the right to vote.

Perhaps the most predictable stab at reform comes from Representative Dale Tillery, a Dallas Democrat. His bill amends the election code to read "a voting system may not be used in an election if the system uses a punch-card ballot or similar form of tabulating card." Even casual viewers of the Florida vote-count debacle picked up on the villain of the piece: ticky-tacky vote-a-matic booths with the computer card ballots and punch stylus, ideal for creating all manner of uncountable chads.

State Representative Debra Danburg of Houston chairs the House Elections Committee, charged with oversight of proposed legislation in the House dealing with the voting system. While Tillery's bill is in step with public opinion, she says, serious financial issues need to be addressed before junking punch-card systems statewide.

"I don't think it would be appropriate for us to just ban outright punch-card ballots," says the chairman. "It would be an unfunded mandate for the state, and with our tight budget and no proposed pay raises for a lot of state employees, we're just not going to spend the many millions of dollars of statewide tax revenue to buy machines for those few counties who haven't upgraded yet."

What Danburg would like to see passed is legislation that would position the state to use any federal dollars that become available to upgrade voting systems in Texas counties.

"If the feds really do cough up the dollars that they are discussing in all these various committees in Washington," explains Danburg, "even if we're not in session I'm going to authorize the secretary of state's office to draw it down without a special session. So if the money comes forward, we're going to be able to take advantage of it."

If punch-card machines continue to be used, Danburg would like to see additional safeguards to make it more difficult for election officials to tamper with punch-card ballots after the precincts close. Critics of the system have pointed out that it is relatively easy to disqualify votes with additional punches while they are being transferred from voting sites to county headquarters for tabulation.

Danburg's fellow Houstonian on the Elections Committee, Representative Ron Wilson, authored House Bill 672 to lower the minimum voting age to 14 in Texas. We caught up with Wilson by phone in Washington, D.C., where he was taking in the inaugural spectacle.

The legislator says he got the idea for lowering the voting age when he went to Huntsville for the execution of Gary Graham last year and discovered how many juveniles are tried as adults and sentenced to state prison.

"There's an increasing move in this state and across the country to lower the age of those who are accused of committing crimes, as far as them being eligible for certification as adults," explains Wilson. "If on the one hand we think that 13-year-olds ought to be considered adults in a criminal sense, why should we not assume that a 14- or 15-year-old ought to have the capacity to go into a voting booth and vote for who they think is an appropriate candidate? Seems to me as a society we can't have it both ways."

As for that other bill to ban punch ballots, Wilson says Texans seem to be able to handle the technology better than their Florida counterparts. "I don't know if the people in Texas are just more intellectually competent to handle those machines, but we just haven't had the problems they've had."

Several bills seek to eliminate straight-party voting. Texans now have the option to vote once for the party they prefer, without considering individual races. The practice is popular among Republicans in rural counties and African-American Democrats in the urban precincts of Houston and Dallas. In the November election it was not uncommon for straight-party voting to exceed 95 percent of the total ballots cast in Houston's lower-income black precincts.

Good-government proponents like Houston attorney Paul Hobby argue that straight-party voting encourages partisanship and discourages voters from weighing the merits of individual candidates. Representative Anna Mowery proposes eliminating straight-party voting only in judicial contests.

"I don't think it hurts the Democrats," says Campaign Strategies' Dan McClung, who will be lobbying in the upcoming session. "If Democrat voters just had to go down and hit every 'D,' they'd probably do that anyway. I don't know about the 'R's."

University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray figures elimination of straight-party voting might cost Democrats a percentage point or two in statewide elections. Since Democratic voters tend to have lower incomes and less education, they may have more problems negotiating a lengthy ballot without error.

"I think that's worth looking at," says Danburg, "[but] I don't think just removing the [straight party] punch on the judges will get us where we need to be."

Legislation has been introduced again this year to change the partisan election of judges to a system of gubernatorial appointment followed by retention elections for incumbents. The traditional stance of Republicans opposed and Democrats in favor may be changing along with the demographics of several large counties.

"The Republicans think having it the way it is serves their best interests," explains McClung, "but I think the Democrats largely see, at least in Harris and Dallas counties, that they're right on the verge of recovering majorities in those big metropolitan counties. So they are inclined to keep it the way it is."

The recent experience of Seventh Congressional District winner John Culberson helped inspire a bill by state Representative John Shields to criminalize the misuse of tax-exempt organizations in political contests. Culberson went to court after a Panhandle-based activist used a nonprofit group as a front against him, falsely accusing Culberson of illegal activities in flyers. The material was distributed at polling places on Election Day last November.

Shields's bill would make it a Class A misdemeanor for anyone to represent in campaign material that it is from a tax-exempt organization, or a former or current member of a tax-exempt organization.

A bill by Representative Pete Gallego would prohibit unopposed judges from accepting campaign contributions. Danburg says it's an idea that sounds good but has some practical drawbacks.

"We're sometimes willing to do to judges what we're not willing to do to ourselves," comments Danburg. She notes that urban officials have to be in the public eye all year long, making appearances in a series of events that require either paid tickets or complimentary admission. "You either have to pay for it out of an officeholder account or receive a comp, and either one smells like a contribution to me."

Perhaps the one election reform that has no chance of passage is a proposal by Representative Buddy West. He wants a constitutional amendment requiring legislative candidates to pass the same basic skills examination required for admission to Texas institutions of higher learning.

"It's very cute," laughs Danburg, "and it's probably unconstitutional."

Not to mention unpassable.


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