The Austin Chronicle

Voter Applications on the Hook in Harris

By Lee Nichols, October 31, 2008, News

Paul Bettencourt, Harris County tax assessor-collector and voter registrar, is facing accusations of voter suppression by dragging his feet on processing voter registration applications and rejecting applications on technicalities.

When the first day of early voting arrived Oct. 20, Bettencourt told the Houston Chronicle that 13,000 applications were still waiting to be processed. Bettencourt said many of those were probably just unintended duplicates – but, the Houston Chronicle noted, it obviously meant that some newly registered voters might show up at the polls and not find their names on the list of eligible voters.

This could have an effect on Austin, because Congressional District 10's voters are almost evenly split between Travis and Harris counties – and conventional wisdom says many of the new registrants will favor Obama and other Democrats. "If the reports are correct that the Harris County tax assessor-collector's office has 13,000 unprocessed voter applications, that is voter disenfranchisement," said CD 10 Democratic candidate Larry Joe Doherty.

Back on Oct. 6, the final day of the voter registration deadline, KTRH Radio in Houston quoted Bettencourt saying, "The interest level in this election is not as high as people thought it would be," and his voter registration director, George Hammerline, said registration would be about the same as 2004, adding, "Then you do start to wonder, maybe everyone that wanted to register is registered." That was wildly at odds with predictions in the Austin area, where Travis Co. Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir predicted a "tsunami" of voters, and statewide, where Secretary of State Hope Andrade predicted "huge voter turnout."

That was followed by a story on KHOU-TV wherein reporter Mark Greenblatt found 30 citizens who had their registrations rejected for mistakes – mistakes they said they didn't make. Frances Graham of Houston Votes said that of the 130 people she registered, more than a third were similarly rejected. Bettencourt dismissed Greenblatt's accusation by acknowledging that his office may have made mistakes but telling him: "Sure, it's 25. Twenty-five out of 1.9 million [Harris County registrations]."

Hammerline told The Austin Chronicle that the 13,000 registrations hadn't been processed "because there are only so many hours in a day. We received 100,000 voter registration applications on the cutoff day and for two days afterward. We've been working 12 to 13 hours a day. And we had a backlog going into that. Nobody would have predicted you'd get 100,000 cards on cutoff day."

"Even the secretary of state's office was saying we're expecting a record turnout," countered Amber Moon, spokeswoman for the Harris Co. Democratic Party. "So rather than preparing his office for what's obviously going to be an increase because of the enthusiasm for this election, he stuck his head in the sand, because it's bad for Repub­lic­ans that more people are registering, and Monday morning of early voting comes, and 13,000 people aren't on the rolls.

"He hasn't really opened the process up to people. He often places form over substance on applications and rejects applications because they didn't check a certain box. He rejects applications on a technicality. ... Rather than opening up the process and encouraging people to vote, he's made it more difficult, and keeping people off the rolls is a top priority," Moon said.

That, replies Hammerline, "is a patent, outrageous lie. I encourage anyone who says that to come watch us work. This idea that there's some black helicopter team is absurd. ... I do take offense when people think there is a conspiracy down here. Are we capable of mistyping something? Absolutely."

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