Harris County Election Woes – Should The DOJ Get Involved?

On Monday, the Harris County Commissioners Court authorized $13.5 million for use by the Harris County Clerk to purchase new voting machines before November’s election.

It’s an important move because the county’s  voting equipment was destroyed in a fire last Friday. Beverly Kaufman said her office will also ask other counties in Texas to send e-slates to Harris County. Her office will also print paper ballots as backup.

But some democratic state lawmakers have sent a letter to Eric Holder, the Attorney General of  the United States asking the DOJ to oversee the development of new plans for conducting the election.

I’ve printed the entire letter below:

The Honorable Eric Holder

Attorney General of the United States

Mr. Tom Perez

Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division

U.S. Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20530-0001

 Dear Attorney General Holder,

Last Friday, August 27, 2010, a fire in a Houston warehouse destroyed nearly all of Harris County’s electronic voting machines.  This dreadful event, occurring 51 days before the start of early voting in Texas, could have terrible implications for Harris County voters if not handled correctly.

We are writing to request your office use its authority under the Voting Rights Act to assist and oversee the development of new plans for conducting the upcoming elections in Harris County in order to ensure that the plans that are implemented will adequately protect the voting rights of racial and language minorities.  Our constituents represent the vast majority of African American, Latino, and Vietnamese voters in the county, and as you know, Harris County is one of the most diverse and most populous counties in the nation.

While we are heartened by the stated intention of local officials in Harris County and across the state to conduct a fair and open election in November, we are concerned that some of the options for conducting the election could have an adverse impact on voter participation, especially in communities of color.  The fire itself was devastating, but that devastation should not be compounded by the adoption and implementation of objectionable practices in order to make up for the loss of voting equipment in the fire.  In recent elections, there have been controversial actions on the part of Harris County officials that administer and oversee voter registrations and elections. We ask your assistance in avoiding any such practices to ensure that every one of our constituents is able to participate fully in the November elections.

Media reports have suggested that county election officials are considering the consolidation of the 739 polling stations planned for Election Day in Harris County.  Improper consolidation of polling places can have the effect of discouraging turnout.  In some previous elections, precinct consolidation based on population and turnout levels has resulted in the closing of neighborhood polls in minority precincts in urban districts, which poses a distinct problem for less mobile voters. Additionally, the presence of fewer voting machines in fewer locations creates longer lines, which further discourages voting.  Removing neighborhood voting locations and fostering conditions for longer lines must be avoided to prevent suppression of minority voters.  Further, adequate notification of changes in polling place locations must be given to communities.

While we are fortunate that no individuals were harmed in the fire, we must work together to ensure that the voting rights of Harris County residents do not become the real victim of the fire.  Thank you for your attention to this matter, please do not hesitate to contact us should we be of any assistance to your office in this endeavor.

Sincerely,

Representative Garnet Coleman

Representative Carol Alvarado

Representative Al Edwards

Representative Ana Hernandez

Representative Kristi Thibaut

Representative Sylvester Turner

Representative Hubert Vo

Senator Rodney Ellis

Representative Alma Allen

Representative Ellen Cohen

Representative Jessica Farrar

Representative Scott Hochberg

Representative Senfronia Thompson

Representative Armando Walle

Senator Mario Gallegos

Senator John Whitmire

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