Friday, September 23, 2016

How election laws require some logistic gymnastics

At least twice a decade I’m glad I’m not Jackie Callenen.

This year, I’m particularly glad.

Callenen is in charge of running the November election, in which more than half a million citizens of Bexar County will help elect a president, five members of the House of Representatives, 11 members of the Texas Legislature, 14 judges, a sheriff and a few other officials.

I am not foolish enough to predict who will win all these offices, but I will predict this:

The mechanics of the election will not go perfectly.

And Callenen, probably Bexar County’s best election administrator in modern times, will receive more criticism for the glitches than she will praise for her overall performance.

Elections in major cities never go perfectly.

The logistics are simply too complex.

What’s more, they are dependent on hundreds of volunteers who happen to be human.

Inevitably, mistakes will be made.

But this year Callenen’s already difficult job is made even tougher by two court cases.

With Callenen’s office coming up hard against a deadline to get ballots out to our troops around the world, both court cases are still in process.

One involves whether a candidate will be on the ballot.

The other, a federal lawsuit over voter ID, involves both what training Callenen will give the people running the polling places, and what information she will give the public about proving they are eligible to vote.

Today let’s take just the first case.

It is particularly silly.

It involves the election to replace State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, who resigned last year because of illness.

A special election was held last August to fulfill McClendon’s turn.

It was, practically speaking, meaningless since the winner of the special election would have to be re-elected in November to actually exercise any power.

The Legislature meets only every other year and the next session isn’t until January.

Special elections, very low-turnout free-for-alls in which Republicans, Democrats and independents share the same ballot, often yield unusual results.

In this case, Laura Thompson ran as an independent and got into a run-off.

She then beat businessman Lou Miller by 50 votes with a micro-turnout of just 1.29 percent of registered voters.

Meanwhile, Barbara Gervin-Hawkins beat former City Councilman Mario Salas in a runoff to win a place as the Democrat on the November ballot.

Neither had run in the meaningless special election.

Thompson then decided to run in November as an independent, which required collecting 500 signatures.

It had been determined that she hadn’t turned in enough qualified signatures, but the Texas secretary of state’s office overruled that finding.

But this week, the Bexar County Democratic Party went to court in Austin, arguing that it could show that a sufficient number were disqualified to void her candidacy even though she has virtually no chance of winning.

Democratic officials expect 10,000 Democratic voters in the district to vote a straight ticket.

No Republican is on the ballot.

It’s inconceivable that Thompson, whose special election runoff count was all of 635, will be able to overcome that advantage for Gervin-Hawkins.

Bexar County spent money on the election and runoff to choose someone to be a powerless legislator for a few months.

And now Callenen is on hold waiting for a court decision to determine whether that hopeless candidate will be on the ballot.

Callenen as ever follows the law even as it makes her job more difficult.

But she does have a proposal.

If the state must elect people to meaningless interim seats in the Legislature, at least it could tweak the law so that no runoff is required.

Oh, and she says the county shouldn’t have to pay for those elections.

The state should.

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