Pressley Ups the Ante

Defeated Council candidate now claims “thousands” of uncertain votes

In her latest filing contesting the election of City Council Member Greg Casar, defeated District 4 candidate Laura Pressley alleges that enough votes were suppressed or miscounted to overturn the recount results. And she (or her lawyer) doesn’t think much of the “far-left” Chronicle, either. Oh boy.

Laura Pressley at City Council

On Feb. 27, Pressley’s lawyer, David Rogers, filed her Third Amended Original Petition contesting the District 4 election, amplifying the earlier charges she made in her complaints to the Secretary of State (rejected) and her first two petitions. In those earlier pleadings Pressley identified 121 votes that might have been miscounted or counted in error, although she lost the Dec. 16 run-off by 1,291 votes (65%-35%), and a Jan. 6 recount precisely confirmed those results. Her latest pleading totals up thousands of potentially missing votes – including hundreds of votes that, by her own description, were never, in fact, voted – in order to claim, now, sufficient numbers of votes to call the outcome into question.

The latest iteration of Pressley’s claims emphasizes her charge that certain “high-volume” Nov. 4 election-night polling places were closed for the Dec. 16 run-off (when, as is standard practice, polls were consolidated) and therefore, “Voters seeking to vote at high-volume locations were improperly denied their right to cast their vote.” The pleading then assumes that all the lower turnout for those precincts (“and likely more”) was due to these closures, calculating 2,157 disenfranchised voters “and most likely more.” Pressley also claims that according to voter registration and other records, 66 voters who cast votes were ineligible to do so, 156 voters voted in the run-off that had not voted in the general election (as is perfectly normal, but the petition describes these votes as “potentially illegal”). She reiterates her earlier allegations that some mail-in votes may have been counted twice (although she personally monitored the confirming, hand-recount of those ballots), and that she is not satisfied with the election-night reconciliation of the number of voters with the number of votes. (Those complaints were submitted to the Secretary of State, who declined to forward them to the Attorney General for criminal review.)

Asked this week why the petition is only now attempting to enumerate all those additional votes allegedly missing from the final tally, Pressley and her attorney Rogers each replied, “Because the other side specifically requested that we add them,” referring to the response to her Second Amended Petition by Casar’s attorneys, Chuck Herring and Kurt Kuhn.

Once again, Pressley insists that that her nearly identical percentage results in the general election and in the runoff (35%, albeit of different total votes) are “statistically improbable” and “indicative of mistakes made by Travis County election officers.” And she describes Casar’s response to these claims – that unusual results for an unusual candidate “are unsurprising” – as “emotional wishful thinking rather than a clear-eyed analytical assessment of evidence and data.” (Readers might pause here to wonder whether a candidate who lost by 30 percentage points, and lost a recount by the same 30 points, should call the court’s attention to the notion of “wishful thinking.”)

Pressley’s claim continues to rest, however, primarily on her charge that the “cast vote records” tallied in the recount are not equivalent to “images of ballots cast” specified in state law – even though the Secretary of State confirmed that the CVR’s meet the current state standard, and indeed are currently the only printed database records available in Texas for recount. As Pressley sees it, unless the cast vote record, when printed, looks like a hand-marked ballot, it’s not an accurate record of a legitimate vote. At one point, the pleading cites Pressley’s academic and professional credentials (and her campaign fliers) as evidence of her scientific sophistication. Yet based on her statements and legal filings, she seems unable (or unwilling) to grasp that computers store digital information rather than literal physical images. Given enough time (and taxpayer money for apps, hardware, programming, etc.), the voting machines could be made to spit out the results in the shape of a handwritten ballot, a candidate selfie, or the Mona Lisa – but it would not alter the basic digital information stored within. In this case, that would be the election results that show that Casar won, and Pressley lost, 65%-35%.

Asked about that issue, Pressley first cited some of the existing image file types (jpegs, bitmaps, tifs, pdfs, etc.) without distinguishing between the digital code stored in a computer file and the “image” that appears on a screen or in a printout. Asked about that distinction, she said she doesn’t agree with the ruling by the Secretary of State’s office that “cast vote records” equal “images of ballots cast” – and hopes the court will reverse that decision. Rogers similarly cited image file types as constituting the sort of “ballot images” required by law, insisting, “Have you heard of WYSIWIG? That’s what we’re asking for, and that’s what we believe the law requires.”

WYSIWIG – the industry acronym for “What You See Is What You Get” – refers to the image on a computer monitor responding directly to the user’s input and that can then be printed. By that standard, the single line that in fact appears on the screen for a vote on one race on a Travis County electronic voting machine would seem to correspond rather closely to the “cast vote records” printed and recounted on Jan. 6 – although it doesn’t necessarily “look like” a hand-marked ballot. (A voter’s personal “paper trail” is a different question, one that Pressley’s contest has not raised.)

Casar’s response to Pressley’s last petition cited, in passing, coverage by the Chronicle and other media (“The Pressley Fiasco,” Daily News, Nov. 4) to demonstrate the curious nature of her campaign and extremist opinions as having in part led to her defeat. Pressley's pleading describes these citations as “vague and irrelevant references and personal attacks from a politically biased news source, the far-left Austin Chronicle. The Chronicle endorsed and directly campaigned for Contestee Casar. Additionally, the Chronicle has little to no scientific expertise on staff that is qualified to offer expert testimony on complex topics of mathematics, chemistry, physics and engineering, which they attempt to report and critique.”

That is frankly a can of worms that neither “Dr. Pressley” nor her attorney Rogers should be eager to open. To begin with, since in Texas “far-left” has come to mean – more or less – strong support for public education and health care combined, say, with persistent skepticism concerning the efficacy of capital punishment, we’ll proudly plead guilty as charged. We’re used to it.

Nevertheless, I asked what Pressley might mean by “far left” and how she believes it applies to the Chronicle. She credited the specific passage to her lawyer, then said, “That’s a good question. I’d have to think on that.” Rogers cared rather less for the question, and initially responded that he’d been “reading [our] publication for four decades, and I’m not illiterate.” He continued that “it’s obvious” we’re far left, “certainly further left than any other publication in town.” Pressed to describe at least one Chronicle position that he defines as “far left,” he finally mentioned presidential endorsements – specifically citing George McGovern and Walter Mondale.

For the record, McGovern ran for president in 1972; the Chronicle’s first issue was published in September of 1981. Mondale’s 1984 local campaign chair was none other than “far-left” then-Democrat-later-Republican-now independent Carole Keeton [then] Strayhorn[see note below*]. We were hardly aware Keeton is our left-wing political soul sister; Rogers has opened our eyes.

Was Rogers saying, then, that endorsing Democrats for president constituted being “far left”? At that question, the attorney angrily accused me of “twisting his words” and “lying about what he said” – and hung up the phone.

That’s too bad. I was hoping to ask Rogers about his previous work for former Texas Supreme Court Justice Steven Wayne Smith (2002-2004), whose opinions on racial matters so embarrassed the state Republican leadership that they disowned him and engineered his 2004 defeat. (Rogers was Smith’s 2002 campaign manager, and according to his web site bio, later worked for him at the court.) Prior to that episode, Smith was one of the Hopwood attorneys responsible for undermining and briefly ending affirmative action in Texas universities – and (although he wouldn’t stay on the phone long enough for me to confirm it), it appears that "David A. Rogers" was also one of the four Hopwood plaintiffs, who claimed that minority applicants to UT-Austin were unfairly favored ahead of white applicants like themselves (as one can no doubt confirm by even a cursory review of current UT student demographics).

I really wanted to ask Rogers if he agreed with his former employer’s opinion that minority students should confine themselves to “lower-tier” universities and not even attempt to compete with white students for places at “elite” schools like Harvard or UT-Law. In theory, at least, that would be some indication of just how far from “far left” is “far right.” That conversation, alas, will have to wait for another day.

Pressley’s own politics she described as “independent” or “a mix,” citing specifically her support for environmental protection accompanied by strong fiscal conservatism. In fact, over the years, she’s also adhered to an eclectic amalgam of “neighborhood” cliches, explicitly Alex Jones-style libertarianism, and stealth Tea Party extremism, accompanied around the margins by Internet-nutty theories about fluoride, smart meters, smartphones, and 9/11 conspiracies. (As recently as last month, she appeared on a conspiracist radio show claiming that smart meters made her legs twitch.)

It’s not yet clear how long Pressley intends to pursue this legal and political circus. She’s fallen in with a crowd that loves activist jurisprudence – as long as it’s right-wing activism – and her small but fervid crowd of active supporters (see the Chronicle forums) are encouraging her to carry it ever onward and upward. She herself describes her self-aggrandizing electoral crusade as evidence of political “courage” on the order of Gandhi. Politicians are certainly known for their outsize egos – but that level of wishful thinking on the part of an also-ran City Council candidate is definitely unusual.


[*Update Note: Former Austin mayor and Texas comptroller Carole Keeton was kind enough to call us and update this information; she is no longer "Strayhorn" nor "Republican," but only "Carole Keeton" and "my own brand of Texas independent." She says the last time she voted in a Republican primary was "about 2004," and was glad to let Chronicle readers know that at 75, she's still keeping up with Austin politics, and is a devoted reader of the Chronicle. "My kids and grandkids think I'm crazy, but I watch Channel 6 on my recumbent exercycle."]

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

December 2014 Run-off, Laura Pressley, District 4 City Council, Greg Casar, David Rogers, Hopwood, Steven Wayne Smith

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