What's a Master of Discovery?

Q&A guide to the challenge in House District 48

Howard and Neil: Time to lawyer up, folks
Howard and Neil: Time to lawyer up, folks

So the race in West Austin's House District 48 is heading to its ultimate showdown: A legislative hearing on whether Democratic incumbent Donna Howard's victory should stand. With Howard filing her official response to Republican challenger (now plaintiff) Dan Neil's suit, let's recap the issues.

Q: So what's this all about?

A: On Nov. 2, Republican Neil lost to Howard by 16 votes. He demanded a recount, which cut Howard's margin to 12. He then filed a petition for election challenge with the Texas House of Representatives.

Q: So what is Neil claiming?

A: The basic argument is that the Travis County Elections Division made every mistake under the sun, from miscounting the totals to allowing 1,900 felons to vote. However, the big question is about Federal Post Card Application ballots (for a full analysis, read this.) Those are the mail-in ballots for U.S. citizens living indefinitely out of the country. They're only allowed to vote in federal races, since they're not really resident in Texas, but some voted straight-ticket. Neil wants those ballots counted all the way down the ballot – including this race.

Q: So What's Howard's response?

A: That, when he's asking for the ineligible mail-in voters to be counted, not only is Neil legally wrong, but since 33 of the 40 voters went straight-ticket Democrat, that would actually help her. As for Neil's other complaints, she argues that his claims are false, and that he presented to evidence to back his claim about voting felons.

Q: Hadn't Howard already filed a response?

A: No, that was a special exceptions filing, which is basically a challenge on the timeliness and clarity of Neil's filing. In that, Howard's lawyers requested that Neil be asked to refile with more details, so they can create a more thorough defense.

Q: Wasn't there some fuss about military voters being denied their rights?

A: Yes, there was, and it was completely untrue. The Neil campaign has backed away from that claim, but it hasn't stopped ultra-conservative groups like Empower Texans from continuing to disseminate that incorrect information.

Q: So what happens next?

A: This is a legal proceeding, so all the paperwork goes to a Master of Discovery appointed from the House members by the speaker (Update: Now confirmed to be Will Hartnett, R-Dallas.) Depending on what rules are set, they will either make their own recommendations to a specially appointed committee or act as a combination counsel/chair for it. That committee will then make a recommendation to the full House. The House can then either leave the result in place or, if they find for the plaintiff, either overturn the race or (more likely) order a special election.

Q: Has this happened before?

A: Yes, but it's rare. It's even happened in Austin. In 2005, Republican incumbent Jack Stick filed a challenge against his loss to Democrat Mark Strama. He wasn't alone: In Houston, Talmadge Heflin (now head honcho at the Texas Public Policy Foundation tried to have his 33 vote loss to Democrat Hubert Vo overturned, while GOPer Eric Opelia sought legislative intervention in his loss to Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles, D-Corpus Christi

Q: How'd that work out for the plaintiffs?

A: Not so great. All three withdrew their challenges, leaving Vo, Toureilles and Strama seated in the 2005 session.

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Elections, Dan Neil, Donna Howard, Texas House of Representatives, Travis County Elections Division, Master of Discovery, Election Contest, Buck Wood, Federal Post Card Application, Talmadge Heflin, Special Exceptions

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