April 14, 2009
Dems versus Vasquez

Looks like we're not ready to make nice with the Harris County Tax Assessor's office over their handling of voter registration last year.

Any honeymoon between Democrats and the new Harris County voter registrar ended suddenly today.

Democratic state Reps. Garnet Coleman and Ana Hernandez of Houston said Leo Vasquez, who is tax assessor-collector and voter registration chief, is responsible for staffers who allegedly misled state legislators considering whether to require voters to offer more proof of identification before casting ballots.

"It is up to (Vasquez) to clean up his office," Coleman and Hernandez said in a news media handout. "Otherwise, Leo needs to go."


Vasquez, saying he is running the registration agency without regard to politics and will not join the GOP frontlines, since has expanded voter registration efforts and hired a Democrat to help with community outreach.

He said today that testimony in Austin last week on the "voter ID" bill by voter registration staffers George Hammerlein and Ed Johnson was no partisan move. The pair, called to testify by Republican lawmakers, took no position on the bill and provided facts as requested, Vasquez said.

Coleman and Hernandez never have taken their concerns to him, Vasquez said, and they owe his staffers an apology for making baseless allegations.

The Democrats today zeroed in on Hammerlein's legislative testimony, several hours into hearing that ran past midnight, that thousands of Harris County residents who registered to vote on time were not eligible to participate in early voting two weeks later because they applied relatively late.

Hammerlein acknowledged today that his statement was wrong and said it was due to the strange hour rather than any attempt to mislead the Legislature.

I've reprinted the press release beneath the fold, and a copy of the doc that spelled out the allegations against Hammerlein and Johnson is here. I've been hearing some grumbling about the way things have been run at the Tax Assessor's office, in particular complaints about being told that deputy registrars could not deliver new registration forms to annex offices. That turned out to be a case of miscommunication between the head office and the annexes. Perhaps that's to be expected with a change in command, but it wasn't a good first impression and it didn't help alleviate any of the lingering mistrust left over from the Bettencourt days. It's not surprising, given the stakes in the voter ID fight, that Vasquez isn't being cut any slack. Stace has more.

Meanwhile, immigration attorney and former Houston City Council member Gordon Quan has an op-ed about voter ID and the Betty Brown incident.

While some will argue that this increases the integrity of the ballot, in reality, voter ID requirements have been overwhelmingly shown to disproportionately disenfranchise older Americans, individuals with disabilities, low income and homeless people, students, married women, minorities and most poignantly, those who, for cultural reasons, may have differing names on differing identification documents. According to the nation's largest exit poll of Asian Americans, nearly 70 percent of Asian voters were asked for ID at the polls -- in states where no ID was required!

Voter ID requirements put an inordinate amount of discretion in the hands of already overworked poll workers. Our state and county election offices already find themselves constantly struggling to find the resources to adequately train poll workers and to recruit diverse poll workers who are versed in every possible cultural circumstance that they may encounter. This legislation would take precious funds away from those programs as well as from real priorities such as transportation and education. As evidenced by this episode with Brown and the Elections Committee, even individuals as well versed in the law as they are were unable to understand the complexities associated with Asian names as they relate to voting. Just imagine the difficulty a poll worker would have and how they could easily not allow an eligible voter even with a valid voter registration card to vote.

If you want to discuss this issue in more detail, there will be a conference call Thursday night with Ramey Ko, US Rep. Mike Honda, State Rep. Hubert Vo, Mini Timmaraju of the Asian American Democrats of Texas, and others. The AAA Fund blog has the details. You can submit a question for Ramey Ko ahead of time, but you must RSVP to join the call, so click over for the info if you're interested.

UPDATE: Vince has more on Hammerlein's testimony.

Today, State Representatives Garnet Coleman (Dist. 147) and Ana Hernandez (Dist. 143) called on Republican Tax Assessor Collector Leo Vasquez to dismiss two of his top managers for their dishonest testimony before legislative committees this session. The office has come under fire for mishandling many of its basic duties during the 2008 election. While testifying under oath about proposed Republican Voter Photo ID legislation, Director of Voter Registration George Hammerlein and Associate Director Ed Johnson gave false information in response to questions from legislators about the department's problems.

"The Harris County Voter Registration Department has put partisanship ahead of voter participation for far too long," said Representative Garnet Coleman.

"Mr. Vasquez's Voter Registration Directors crossed the line when they went to Austin on taxpayer dollars and lied to legislative committees, while offering testimony intended to assist the passage of a partisan voter ID agenda," Coleman added. "Mr. Vasquez should dismiss these employees immediately and make sure our tax dollars are being used to properly carry out the voter registration duties of his office."

On October 20, 2008, the first day of Early Voting, the Houston Chronicle reported that more than 13,000 voter registration applications in Harris County had not yet been processed, meaning these newly registered voters were not able to vote even though they submitted their applications on time. At a Texas House Elections Committee hearing last week, Hammerlein claimed voters who register at the deadline aren't eligible to vote until Election Day anyway, which is patently false. Texas election law explicitly says a person who is eligible to vote on Election Day is eligible to vote early. (Texas Election Code Sec 13.143(b))

Last November, the Republican Chairman of the Harris County Ballot Board Jim Harding, criticized the Tax Assessor's office's handling of provisional ballots, telling the Houston Chronicle that the counting of provisional ballots was delayed by faulty work of the Tax Assessor's staff. But when testifying before the Texas Senate last month, Ed Johnson said his office had nothing to do with provisional ballots -- even though depositions from department employees indicated Johnson was in charge of reviewing provisional ballots that were altered with white out and correction fluid before they were reviewed by the Ballot Board.

"Leo Vasquez should take responsibility for the department's failures and hire individuals who will make sure every eligible citizen is properly registered and able to vote when the polls open," said Representative Ana Hernandez, who noted the previous controversies and problems with the Voter Registration office occurred when the two directors worked for Vasquez's predecessor, Paul Bettencourt.

"Leo Vasquez has to choose: he can clean up his Voter Registration Department or continue the same pattern of partisanship established by Mr. Bettencourt," Hernandez concluded.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 14, 2009 to Show Business for Ugly People
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