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October 4th, 2008:

Voter registration may not reach 2004 levels in Harris County

Voter registration may be at an all-time high statewide, but here in Harris County we’ll be lucky to match 2004 totals.

Ahead of Monday’s registration deadline, about 1,912,000 citizens were on the voter roll as of Friday, county officials said. The number will grow as registrations continue through the weekend and mail postmarked by Monday arrives next week.

But the county must add 30,000 new eligible voters just to reach the 2004 level, and Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt, the county voter registrar, acknowledged a strong chance that the sign-ups will go no higher than the figure from four years ago.

Bettencourt predicted at midyear that registrations in the sprawling county would break the 2 million mark for the first time as groups such as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now and the League of Women Voters mounted registration drives.

Texas has already set a record of 13.2 million voters qualified to cast ballots in next month’s election or early voting this month, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. The previous high was almost 13.1 million.

But unlike in past elections years, Bettencourt said, registration efforts are producing an exceptionally high number of voters who are re-registering to update their address and a relatively low number of people who have never registered before.

So despite new high-water marks being set in places like Hidalgo, Travis, and El Paso Counties, Harris County, which has certainly seen its share of population growth, is stagnant. Why is that? I think part of the answer is in that last paragraph, and part of it can be seen in an earlier story. From the Chron in July:

For starters, 2 million citizens older than 17, in a county of roughly 4 million people, would represent only meager growth from the last presidential election here. The 2004 roll fell only 60,000 shy of 2 million.

On the other hand, the roll dropped to 1.8 million a year ago, due in part to Bettencourt’s groundbreaking efforts under state and federal law to remove outmoded or improper registrations.

In other words, we started out 150,000 voter registrations in the hole. When you think of it in those terms, it’s amazing we are where we are now.

One of the challenges facing the county registrar’s office is the Houston area population’s apparent wanderlust. Half of the residents here rent their dwellings, according to the U.S. Census. Many switch locations every few months or years.

If those voters fail to update their registrations with new addresses, under federal law they are purged from the voter roll after two federal elections. In the meantime, they may be told at the voting place in their new neighborhood that they must return to their old neighborhood to vote.

Bettencourt voluntarily pursues voters to update their registrations after they move from one Harris County location to another. Using driver’s license address changes and other government records in a pioneering project, his staff sends letters to such voters — about 100,000 every summer — encouraging them to update their voter registrations.

As I hear it, those notices go to people’s old addresses, not to their new addresses, so it’s hard to say how effective that project is. Regardless, just having to get all these people updated puts a huge strain on volunteer efforts. So I ask again: Why is it so different in Harris? Is the so-called “wanderlust” cited that much greater here than elsewhere?

So with all that in mind, let’s return to the question of projecting turnout, both in Harris County and statewide. 1.2 million voters may well be greater than 60% turnout here – at 1,912,000 registrations, it would be 62.8%, and at 1.94 million, the same as 2004, it would be 61.9%. Given Bettencourt’s assertions that the vast majority of primary voters were people who had voted before, it seems reasonable to think that the already-registered would participate at a higher than usual level. I feel less comfortable projecting statewide turnout from this, so I’ll leave any further number crunching to you.

New CD10 poll has Doherty within five

Some good news for Democratic Congressional candidate Larry Joe Doherty in CD10: A new poll by Goodwin Simon Victoria Research has him trailing incumbent Mike McCaul by five points. Here’s the polling memo (PDF):

In the initial trial heat,McCaul gets 43% of the vote to Doherty’s 38%,a scant five percentage-point lead that shows McCaul’s support as completely unchanged from our May baseline (also 43%McCaul), while Dohertyhas gainedfrom34% in May. McCaul was well short of the 50% mark in May, but it is doubly significant now, with only 4 weeks left, that he has done nothing to strengthen his position.

McCaul has relatively low name recognition – only 59% – which allows a reasonable well-funded campaign – Doherty has raised a million dollars. so far, so he qualifies – to try to define him. That will be key to closing the gap. There’s no crosstabs or internals available, so I can’t fully evaluate this poll, but it strikes me as perfectly reasonable.

I’m not quite ready to call this race “lean Republican” as BOR has (they have done the same for CD07 as well). Despite the closeness of this poll, and the recent seven-point poll for Michael Skelly, I want to see them crack 40% before I’ll go past “likely Republican”, as the Cook Political Report classified them in July. It’s great that they’re within single digits, and that the incumbents are below 50%. They’ve taken the first steps, now I’m looking for the next step, which I certainly believe they can and will take.

One more thing to ponder: As the national tracking polls in the Presidential race correlate with results in individual state races, so do statewide poll numbers track with downballot races like Congressional campaigns. The latest Texas poll shows John McCain leading by nine points, which is less than half of George Bush’s margin of victory in 2004. Burka thinks 54-46 is a likely outcome. What I’m getting at here is that you can’t have an eight-point margin for the Republican Presidential candidate and the same kind of partisan numbers in Congressional districts like CDs 10 and 07 as you did in 2004. We already know from 2006 that those districts aren’t as red as they once were; this is more evidence to that. I expect that strong Congressional candidates like Doherty and Skelly, who will be spending large amounts of money on advertising and voter outreach, will run better in their districts than Barack Obama will, perhaps by a significant amount. So keep an eye on the state polls as well, such as we get them, because any tightening there should be construed as a boost for these candidates as well. Certainly, the closer things are at the top, the smaller the hill they have to climb.

The city’s plan to cut greenhouse gases

The city of Houston has a plan to cut greenhouse gases.

Mayor Bill White’s plan would reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 11 percent below 2005 levels by 2010. City officials described the target as conservative, because it’s based on existing programs, and they expect to introduce more, including additional solar panels on rooftops and expanded mass transit.

With the strategies already in play, the plan doesn’t need the approval of City Council. What’s new is the analysis of the city’s emissions.

“While we have undertaken all of these initiatives, we’ve taken them for many different reasons,” such as energy efficiency and cost savings, said Elena Marks, the mayor’s director of environmental and health policy. “We hadn’t captured what the emissions reductions would be.”

The plan places Houston high on any list of green strivers, experts said. Austin’s energy goals may be more ambitious, and Arlington has a broader inventory of emissions, but neither has a detailed plan for reducing pollutants that hover in the atmosphere.

[…]

The plan deals in areas that White directly controls, such as the city’s energy use and power purchases.

It also shows how much of the reduction in greenhouse gases will come from which steps. For example, by swapping out every traffic-light bulb for a light-emitting diode, the city would cut emissions of carbon dioxide by 12,011 tons, or 69 percent, from 2005 levels.

The largest reductions would come from Houston’s shift to wind energy, which is cleaner and currently cheaper than that from natural-gas plants. One-third of the city’s power purchases for its municipal facilities already come from wind-driven sources under a contract that allows for incremental increases over time.

“I believe the city of Houston has done more concrete things in the last several years to reduce its emissions than many, many other cities,” White said. “The proof in the pudding is how much less power is consumed by the city and where we get that power.”

I like it. It’s something everyone should be thinking about and doing something about, it’s attainable, and it ought to be a money-saver over time thanks to lower utility bills. Well done.

Endorsement watch: The DMN on the CCA

In my Guess the Chron endorsements post, I wrote that “Any respectable Democratic candidate running for the CCA, a/k/a “Texas’ Worst Court”, should expect to receive an endorsement.” The Morning News comes through for me on that:

Susan Strawn in Place 3

Judge Tom Price has spent more than three decades in office – both in Dallas County and now in Austin. And for years, questions about the Richardson Republican’s work ethic have persisted. Unfortunately, Judge Price, 63, has not learned from past mistakes. His absences continue to accumulate, and his reputation continues to deteriorate.

Many in the legal community have pointed to his haughty temperament and outward hostility as cause for concern. But even more dismaying, they say, is the amount of time his office sits empty. This court – and all of Texas – deserves better.

Democratic challenger Susan Strawn fits the bill. The Houston lawyer, who also teaches at the University of Houston Law Center, recognizes the court’s shortcomings and offers innovative ideas for improvement. She strikes us as smart, measured, hard working and insightful.

While Ms. Strawn, 46, doesn’t have bench experience, she has gained a strong understanding of the law through her work as a federal prosecutor. Her legal work for the federal government also has taken her to Kosovo and West Africa, where she wrote criminal procedure codes.

Judge Price has been quick to point the finger, laying blame for this court’s deficiencies at his colleagues’ feet while ducking responsibility. Ms. Strawn, though, is prepared to make needed changes on the court. She gets our recommendation.

Hopefully, that will be the first of many such endorsements for Strawn. Also as expected, JR Molina failed to respond to the DMN’s requests for information, so they gave no endorsement in the Place 4 race. I have fond hopes for the Democrats putting up three real candidates for the CCA in 2010, and again in 2012 when Sharon Keller is on the ballot. For now, at least we have one.