Texas Democratic Party officials are asking a federal judge in Houston to block what they call illegal moves by Harris County voter registrar Paul Bettencourt as the last few votes are added to the totals from the Nov. 4 election.
U.S. District Judge Gray Miller was scheduled to consider the complaint against Republican Bettencourt at 10 a.m. today.
Bettencourt, who was re-elected last week as county tax assessor-collector, denied the allegations in general Tuesday. He said he had to withhold specific comments until he read the lawsuit and consulted with outgoing County Attorney Mike Stafford.
No results from the overseas and accepted provisional ballots have been made public yet. The mailed ballots generally favor Republican candidates while the provisionals are expected to favor Democratic candidates, according to several political experts.
Since last week's election, Bettencourt's voter registration staff has been checking those provisional ballots against records and reported on each one to a ballot board, whose members are appointed by political parties. Technically, the board decides which votes will be added to the totals before the election results are made official by Commissioners Court, which is scheduled to accept the results Monday.
But, the Democratic officials said in the lawsuit, Bettencourt is providing incorrect information to the board, delaying the counting, refusing to let in observers and has illegally denied voter registrations.
The list of Democratic plaintiffs includes lawyer Goodwille Pierre, who trailed Republican state District Judge Joseph "Tad" Halbach by fewer than 600 votes in the election. In another civil court race, Republican Judge Elizabeth Ray trailed Democratic challenger Josefina Muniz Rendon by fewer than 200 votes.
Bettencourt said he gave a Democratic representative, Collyn Peddie, a tour of his provisional ballot processing system last week but refused on the advice of the Secretary of State's Office to allow anyone to serve as a monitor.
In an affidavit attached to the lawsuit, Peddie cast doubt on Bettencourt's system based on her one-hour presence. She said she saw provisional ballots "set aside" despite notes showing they had been cast by voters who had registered to vote at state Department of Public Safety offices.
The suit charges that Bettencourt may also be improperly blocking votes only because voters had listed commercial, rather than residential addresses and had not been given a chance to explain any discrepancy.
Bettencourt acknowledged to the Chronicle in July that a few voters' registrations had been delayed because they lived in new dwellings previously listed on property rolls as non-residential.
UPDATE: Bettencourt has now produced all the ballots, but at least a part of the lawsuit will go on.
In a miniature version of the 2000 Florida vote drama, election officials prepared to work late tonight toward counting the last leftover votes that could switch outcomes in two Harris County judicial elections.
The tedious work lurched forward when county voter registrar Paul Bettencourt delivered his reports on about 7,000 ballots that were cast by people not listed on the Election Day voter rolls. Some of those residents had been omitted from registration records by mistake, and their votes will be added to last week's totals.
Bettencourt's move led Democratic Party officials to drop their request today for a judge to order him to complete the tallies and open his staff's work to monitors. However, Democrats said they will press ahead next year with the part of their lawsuit that accuses Bettencourt, a Republican, of illegally rejecting voter registration applications.
He sent his work on the 7,000 or so provisional ballots to a bipartisan ballot board that will decide which ones will be added to the Nov. 4 vote total.
About 1,400 of the 7,000 are expected to qualify for addition to elections for countywide offices, election officials said, in addition to about 400 ballots sent by overseas voters.
After a court hearing today on the Democrats' lawsuit, their lawyer, Chad Dunn, implied that Bettencourt had dragged his feet on processing the provisional ballots as the deadline for counting them neared.
"We are disappointed ... that it took a lawsuit to get Mr. Bettencourt to do his job," he said. "The Texas Democratic Party will consistently stand up for the voters' right to cast a ballot and have it be counted."
Bettencourt said he already had been doing the work in a timely fashion before the lawsuit was filed Monday.
"All that this type of frivolous action does is reduce the confidence of the public in the voting systems that have been carefully worked out after the 2000 election," he said. "I am absolutely stupefied that the Democratic Party could stoop to this level."