Victory for Howard, Travis County

Neil concedes defeat in election challenge

The race to represent House District 48 is finally over. On March 18, Republican Dan Neil finally conceded defeat in his challenge against Rep. Donna Howard. As much as the news represents a victory for the incumbent, it also vindicates how the Travis County Elections Division ran the election.

Through a four-month process of counts and recounts as well as a review by the master of discovery, Rep. Will Hartnett, R-Dallas, both sides had votes discounted. But at every stage, Howard was the winner. Neil's attorneys formally filed the notice of withdrawal after a five-hour hearing on March 15 by the House Select Committee on Election Contest. Neil had already hinted that he would end his challenge if he failed at this stage, rather than taking it all the way to the full House.

Heading into the committee meeting, there were still three rival counts: Neil's attorneys claimed he had won by one vote; Howard's lawyers said she was ahead by seven. But it was Hart­nett's recommendation that Howard had won by four that carried the most weight. The committee unanimously voted that Neil had failed to present enough evidence to overturn Hartnett's count and deducted all hearing costs from his deposit lodged when he made his challenge.

The final fight came down to questions of residence, a potentially hazy area, said Hartnett, in an age of couch surfers and house flippers. Since not everyone has a single permanent address, he told the committee, "I give people the benefit of the doubt as to where they say they were domiciled." The legal standard is that the challenger must show a clear and convincing reason to exclude ballots: If the standard was a preponderance of evidence, he said, "I might have come up with a different outcome. But the law is clear – clear and convincing."

Neil's camp never claimed election fraud by Howard's campaign. Instead, his supporters launched a series of allegations against the office of County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir. These actually began before the election, with Republican Liberty Caucus Chair Dave Nalle using the Travis County GOP e-mail account to call for DeBeauvoir's resignation. Even after the withdrawal of unsubstantiated claims of felons being allowed to vote and military voters being disenfranchised, Republican Party of Texas Chair Steve Munisteri in late January was still demanding a full investigation by the Travis County District Attorney. That rhetoric has now disappeared. In a statement, Howard said, "I am still amazed at the scrupulously clean election run by the Travis County Clerk."

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Donna Howard, Dan Neil, Travis County Election Division, Will Hartnett, Dave Nalle, Legislature, Election

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