And Why We’re Going to Look at the Original Documents in the Vo Election Challenge
By Greg Moses
On the surface of things, voters in Houston have finally been allowed to assert their preference in the November election of Vietnamese immigrant Hubert Vo to the state house. The long-time Republican incumbent last week finally withdrew his legislative challenge following publication of a Republican-led investigation that recommended in Vo’s favor.
Not far beneath the surface of things however, larger questions linger, and they should not be swept under the rug. There are questions of precedent: do we want to normalize this kind of legislative contest in close elections? There are questions of racist media bias: why is the major daily now reporting that the case had obvious merit from the start? And there are questions of fairness: why should the alleged wrongdoings of voters be more worthy of attack than the alleged wrongdoings of Republican lawyers who go after them?
Houston blogger Greg Wythe of GregsOpinion.Com speaks plainly about one voter rights issues that lives in the aftermath of the attempt to overturn the Vo election. By treating this unsuccessful legislative challenge as a ‘good fight’, a worrisome attitude is developing that makes these ugly proceedings more likely next time around.
“Taylor and Co. [the attorneys who pressed the legislative contest] just want to be able to get away with more challenges of the voters’ will,” writes Wythe. “Plain and simple. They want more people to vote by provisional ballot. They want more votes they can kick out if they disagree with the outcome. In short, the problem with democracy to Andy Taylor is just that too damn many people vote. Democracy would be fine and well, I suppose, if we just left it to the party bosses of the GOP primary and left it at that.”
To Wythe’s worthwhile suspicion, allow me to add: The ‘provisional ballot’ method that was ushered in via the so-called Help America Vote Act (HAVA) not only segregates ballots of voters who are judged to be questionable on election day, but the process also makes it possible to preserve a public record of how the ballots were cast.
Each provisional ballot is supposed to get a “retrieval code” which helps to segregate the vote. But this also means that voter preference is technically knowable without having to ask the voter. And this means that in a contest where lawyers are in constant dialogue with election officials, the temptation presents itself in a palpable way, to discern a voter’s preference while deciding which voters to discredit.
In contrast to blogger Wythe’s concern that the election challenge raises dangers of partisan manipulations, a Houston Chronicle news story this week reports that the election challenge was compulsory from a fairness point of view and that the attorney who pursued the challenge was a sort of moral hero who took the hard road that others in the GOP would have been publicly embarrassed to take.
The Chronicle news report in fact presents an argument that the election was worth overturning on its face had there been enough political courage among Republicans to do the right thing. Since the GOP was too shy to take such a public stand, they needed an upright attorney to set the system straight.
Here is the Houston Chronicle account passage from Feb. 10:
Taylor [the GOP attorney] won points for taking on a cause that made some Republicans uneasy. The election was close enough, and the eligibility of enough voters was in question, that someone in the GOP had to pick up Heflin’s case.
Heflin asked the House to overturn the election — and a partisan bloc vote could have done that in the GOP-controlled body.
But it would have meant voting against Vo, the first Vietnamese immigrant elected to the House and a member of a constituency, Asian-Americans, that both parties covet.
Taylor wasn’t faced with that political dilemma, and Heflin became the latest GOP legal cause he’s championed.
If I am correct about the logic of the Chronicle’s “news report” then an assumption is being nurtured that any close election morally deserves the kind of treatment to legislative challenge that we’ve just witnessed. What this means to voters of Houston and to subscribers of the Houston Chronicle is that next time there is a close election, they should prepare for lawyers to swoop down upon them while Chronicle reporters applaud.
Actually, I much prefer the Houston Chronicle’s editorial position on this issue, which recently called for the challenger to withdraw, because the pretext for the contest was not supported by evidence.
Said the editorial board on Jan. 31: “As the participants commenced sorting through disputed votes, it soon became clear that rather than some grand conspiracy, irregularities documented were of an accidental nature and not orchestrated by either candidate.”
The Chronicle news item, ten days later, only makes logical sense if we draw out its most significant hidden premise: that there was very good reason to suspect that the rate of illegal voting fell more heavily on one side rather than another.
Contrary to what the recent Chronicle news report asserts, it would not be enough to suppose that the combination of close election and illegal voters is enough to trigger a likely reversal of an election. One has to suppose in addition that illegal voters are unevenly distributed among the partisan camps.
So long as we presume that the rate of illegal voting is evenly distributed across parties, the raw number of illegal votes means nothing. And until we have clear evidence in the matter, we should not go around accusing one class of voters of having obvious tendencies to vote at higher rates of illegality.
Especially, we should take notice that this is Black History month in Texas, too. This the worst time to be smuggling bigoted assumptions that criminalize “Southside” voters, especially when those assumptions already go against the better judgment of the Chronicle editorial board (who endorsed the GOP candidate in the first place) and the Republcan-led investigation (which could not have been more patient with the challenger’s attorneys).
Newspaper reports should not criminalize entire classes of voters without very clear evidence. But the Chronicle’s assumption of Feb. 10 only makes sense if we criminalize Vo’s “Southside” voters, contrary to all evidence that GOP lawyers were able to muster.
In fact, as blogger Wythe points out, following a tip by Vo attorney Larry Veselka, the only two votes that one might want to call intentionally illegal were votes initially cast for Vo’s opponent. So if we are considering evidence rather than bigotry, the facts show that “the eligibility of enough voters” to overturn the race was NEVER in question.
In the end, I am hoping that the Houston Chronicle writers who last week built barricades against pending issues of voters rights (including a swipe at this writer) will come to be guided by the general principles of their own editorial board.
The writers have not been fair to the voters of Houston, especially not to the emerging grassroots voters. In the aftermath of the thorough investigation by Master of Discovery Will Hartnett (R-Dallas), it is a completely insupportable claim to say at this point that “the eligibility of enough voters was in question, that someone in the GOP had to pick up Heflin’s case.” In fact, as I have argued, the conclusion only follows from a premise that is bigoted against the ‘Southside’ voters in this race.
Racist is the word for this kind of news reporting, which is very sad to see at any time; but from a major metro dail
y during Black History Month in the year 2005? The more I write about it, the angrier I get.
Yet, we must say that it is never too late. And we can encourage Chronicle reporters to take guidance from their editorial board and begin focusing on the rights of Houston voters rather than the careers of Republican lawyers.
Next week, the Texas Civil Rights review has an appointment to view all the original documents in this election challenge. We will see for ourselves if there is any truth to reports that irregular depositions were submitted by GOP attorneys or whether those same attorneys improperly affected voter registrations during the course of investigation. We’ll go it alone if we have to. But it should be pointed out in advance that the room containing the documents has room for more than one curious reporter at a time.