Outcome of two Harris County judicial races pending ballot verification

Marilyn Tennissen Nov. 13, 2008, 6:11am

HOUSTON -- The outcome of two narrowly decided judicial races in Harris County hangs in the balance Thursday as election officials work on final vote tabulations.

A bipartisan board has been checking thousands of provisional ballots from last week's election, and are expected to complete the process today, the Houston Chronicle reported.

About 1,400 ballots were being examined and added to the official totals. If the ballots contain votes on judicial elections, they could reverse the outcomes in two contests where fewer than 600 votes separated the winners and losers as of last week.

Texas Democratric Party officials had been so concerned about the counting process that a suit was filed against Harris County Voter Registrar Paul Bettencourt on Monday. Party leaders alleged Bettencourt, a Republican, was intentionally delaying the verification of provisional ballots.

The Democrats had also requested that a federal judge order Bettencourt to complete the tallies, but dropped the motion on Wednesday.

The Chronicle reports that the party plans to continue with the suit that accuses Bettencourt of illegally rejecting voter registration applications.

Democratic candidate Goodwille Pierre, who trailed Republican state District Judge Joseph "Tad" Halbach by fewer than 600 votes, told the Chronicle he had faith the new totals will make him a new judge. "I believe it will definitely show that we are ahead," he said.

In the other closest race, Republican state District Judge Elizabeth Ray trailed Democratic challenger Josefina Muniz Rendon by 135 votes.

After a court hearing 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 told the Chronicle.

Bettencourt told the newspaper 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."

In reaction to potential voters being shut out of the 2000 presidential election, Congress passed a law allowing voters to cast provisional ballots.

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