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District B runoff still up in the air

Hoo boy.

Cynthia Bailey

The runoff in the contested District B race for Houston city council almost certainly will be decided with a special election, due to an election contest filed by the third-place finisher, officials said Wednesday.

Renee Jefferson-Smith, who missed the runoff by 168 votes, filed the contest in district court last Friday, essentially forcing election officials to hold off on the runoff, according to Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray.

The Texas Election Code says a contested runoff cannot be held until there’s a final judgment in the matter.

“It’s as clear as any law I’ve seen,” Ray said.

The county, which has to send out mail ballots for the runoffs Thursday, is printing them Wednesday without the District B race. There are 12 other city council runoffs, set to be decided Dec. 14.

See here and here for the background. As the story says, Jefferson Smith has appealed the dismissal of her lawsuit from last week, which is why this is still ongoing. The law in question reads as follows:

Sec. 232.007. RUNOFF NOT HELD UNTIL FINAL JUDGMENT. (a) A runoff election for a contested office may not be held until the judgment in the contest becomes final.

(b) This section does not affect the conduct of a regularly scheduled runoff for another office that was voted on at the same election as the contested office or at an election held jointly with the election in which the contested office was voted on.

That is indeed quite clear, and I have since received a notification from the County Clerk’s office that:

“Due to a legal challenge, the City of Houston Council Member District B race will not appear on the December 14, 2019 Runoff ballot. This will not affect any of the other races or the election procedures the Harris County Clerk’s Office carries out.”

So to sum up, we have the city of Houston/HISD/HCC runoffs minus District B on December 14, we have the HD148 special election runoff on January 28, we have the 2020 primaries on March 3, and somewhere in there we will also have a stand-alone runoff in District B. As Tommy Lee Jones said in The Fugitive, What. A. Mess.

A later version of the story has a few more details.

Jay Aiyer, a public policy consultant and former political science professor at Texas Southern University, called the delay unprecedented.

“You’ve never had anything where a runoff election itself is just left off,” he said.

City taxpayers will have to foot the bill for the additional election, according to the mayor’s office. Both Ray and Nicole Bates, an attorney for Jefferson-Smith, said it is possible the special election could be held Jan. 28, when a runoff for the open House District 148 seat is scheduled to take place, if the lawsuit is resolved by then.

Alan Bernstein, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s director of communications, said the city would hold the special election on Jan. 28, but would support an earlier date if the suit contesting the election is resolved before then.

[…]

Oliver Brown, Bailey’s attorney, said Jefferson-Smith is arguing the same case in a different forum because she did not like the earlier judge’s ruling.

“The problem is, they’re not doing an actual contest. They’re still just trying to challenge (Bailey’s) eligibility,” he said.

Tarsha Jackson, the first-place finisher who also is in the runoff, has said voters knew about Bailey’s criminal past and said she should be able to continue in the race. Jackson said Wednesday she was disappointed in the delay.

“What’s happening right now is just a prime example of what’s been happening to District B forever. We’re a marginalized and disenfranchised community,” Jackson said. “We have been left behind in this election. The people should be able to go out and vote on the 14th.”

While Jackson and Bailey seemed entrenched in the runoff after the initial court ruling, Aiyer said it is possible that could change in the continuing lawsuit.

“The one thing that seems to be unclear is when you have a special election, who will be the participants in the election,” Aiyer said. “I don’t know if, for example, Bailey is declared ineligible, that doesn’t really presuppose that (Jefferson-Smith) should be in the runoff.”

The delay also calls into question who — if anyone — will represent District B between when Jerry Davis’ term ends on Dec. 31 and the election is held.

While I agree with the interpretation of the law here, I’m still bothered by the way this has all played out. I will say again, the right time to have filed this lawsuit was in September, after the filing deadline passed and before mail ballots were printed. Courts are often reluctant to get involved in electoral disputes before the election, but this was a straightforward question on the law, and no one can claim that waiting till after the election was less messy or controversial. To add onto what Jay Aiyer says at the end here, I’m also bothered by the idea that Renee Jefferson Smith could benefit now from Cynthia Bailey being kicked out of the runoff. We have no way of knowing what might have happened in the November election if Bailey had not been on the ballot. Who’s to say that Alvin Byrd (1,630 votes to Jefferson Snith’s 2,137) or Karen Kossie-Chernyshev (1,408 votes) would not have benefited more from Bailey’s absence? We should have resolved this before any votes were cast. That’s not an option any more, and it’s not fair to any of the candidates involved, never mind the voters themselves. If nothing else, I hope we clarify the law in question in 2021. KUHF has more.

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