, Port Arthur, Texas

November 12, 2012

Provisional ballots, late votes could affect tax office race in county

Dan Bledsoe
The Port Arthur News

BEAUMONT — Provisional and absentee ballots to be tabulated Tuesday

Instead of the majority of the 86,623 voters whose ballots were counted at the end of the night on Election Day, the final outcome of the Jefferson County Tax Assessor-Collector’s race could be determined by roughly two dozen people.

The razor-thin, 23-vote lead for Republican incumbent J. Shane Howard still stands against Democrat challenger Thomas Sigee but neither side is ready to take down political signs.

Howard, whose office oversees voter registration, and Sigee, a collections officer in the county auditor’s office, have both been trying to go about business as usual.

“It’s fine because I know what happened Tuesday,” Howard said. “We have an artificially close outcome specifically because you had a 12,000 (straight-ticket) voter difference.”

The incumbent was referring to the 34,796 Democratic straight-ticket voting result compared to 23,166 straight tickets punched for Republicans.

Given a strong crossover in party votes, Howard’s 43,323 votes bested Sigee’s 43,300 votes by a margin that defies a percentage difference but does not trigger an automatic recount of votes.

That, for now, suits Sigee fine.

“This is not about me anymore. This is about them,” he said of his supporters.

Sigee said he has not requested a recount stating that “the reason is that the count is not complete.”

Both candidates acknowledge being in unchartered territory as an estimated 600 provisional ballots have yet to be counted, a task left to a committee comprised of voters selected by both parties.

Theresa Goodness, chief deputy with the county clerk’s office, said this will be the third time for a group of citizens to come together to decide whether or not a person’s ballot was valid.

So far, 41 ballots were rejected by the Early Voting Ballot Board, a creation of state law designed to address voter integrity for all counties.

Starting at about 9 in the morning, approximately 22 people from a pool of Democrats and Republicans will meet at the Central Counting Station on Viterbo Road in Nederland to review provisional, out-of-state, overseas and last-minute mail-in ballots which could still be allowed under state law, Goodness said.

The 596 provisional ballots are from people who are allowed to vote under any one of eight reasons in which a voter’s eligibility is in question but cannot be immediately determined.

The 63 people on the master list of Early Voting Ballot Board members for Jefferson County “is the same board that met last Saturday (Nov. 3) to review the mail ballots,” Goodness said.

That list is comprised of 35 Democrats and 28 Republicans, although the presiding judge of the board is of the party whose candidate received the most votes in the last gubernatorial election.

“In other words, the presiding judge is a Republican,” Goodness said.

Sigee said it is “statistically impossible” for the vote total not to change and that a recount is inevitable.

Keith Ingram, the Elections Division Director with the Texas Secretary of State’s office, said that the use of Early Voting Ballot Boards applies equally in all counties.

Those rules; however, vary in how they are carried out. Some ballot boards assign a separate committee just to review mail-in ballots to ensure that signatures for those ballots match signatures on the applications submitted. Any decision made by that subcommittee could not then be challenged by the board as a whole.

Why there are that number of provisional ballots allowed and where those votes came from is still unknown.

“I’ve heard so many different accounts,” Sigee said. “We’ve not had this scenario in Jefferson County before.”

The Jefferson County Early Voting Ballot Board, meeting for the third time, will have to determine voter intent, too, similar to the presidential recount of votes cast in Florida in 2000 although electronic machines are the norm for a majority of counties in Texas.

The Jefferson County Commissioners’ Court will meet Wednesday to canvass the election with “official results” being sent to the Secretary of State’s Office, Goodness said.

Jefferson County was one of a handful of counties in Texas selected by the U.S. Department of Justice to have monitors sent to for the general election.