The Truth is in the Quips

A Report on the Texas Secretary of State “Listening Tour”

By Greg Moses

Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams calls himself a retail man: “and you’re my customers,” he told the Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday morning. Indeed, by the time he’d left the room, you might have wondered if he’d sold them all tickets to a show he improvised while standing on their stage.

The pure political theater that the Secretary brought to Travis County has been repeated at several County Commissioners Courts throughout the state, often with the desired results: next day news in the local paper reporting that the Secretary is working hard and helping out. In order to keep from getting stuck in all the sap, however, you have to pay close attention to the quips. That’s how Gainesville Daily Register reporter Andy Hogue handled the story of the Secretary’s visit to Cooke County.

In Travis County, the role of lead quipster went to County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir who still runs the elections around here. She introduced the Secretary with cheer in her voice, while handing him a Lounge Lizards CD. It was a clever joke after all. The Secretary was on a “listening tour” was he not?

“But I didn’t offer him a flak jacket this time,” said DeBeauvoir in the first telling quip of the day. And without taking another breath she joyously introduced the Secretary to the “nicest, smartest court” he’d ever know.

“I’ll get the flak jacket when I come back,” said the Secretary, in the second telling quip of the day. He explained that his “listening tour” started about thirty days ago, listening to “how some of you converse about HAVA.” That’s the Help American Vote Act, which is either reforming or uprooting voting as we know it in America, and is the only reason why the Secretary of State this year has no choice but to tour the County Commissions.

Williams has been tourning commissions with this same show since at least early March. He calls it a listening tour, but everywhere he goes the pattern is repeated with local papers reporting presentation of “a check” to help purchase new electronic voting machines.

“It’s a federal mandate Judge,” says the Secretary with all the stock inflections that signify political bidness in open court. “And I’m not sure how we like federal mandates.” Travis County Judge Samuel T. Biscoe is African American, so his political life has been pretty much defined by federal mandates on the one hand and those who aren’t sure how they feel about them on the other.

“Come January first the HAVA requirements must be met,” says the Secretary, “and Texas will be a leader, a model in meeting those requirements.” What that means is that by January first, HAVA requires all states to: replace punch cards and levers with electronic systems, have new voting system standards, and implement statewide voter registration.

What the Secretary has been dealing with on his county by county tour is that the new voting system standards haven’t been handed down by the federal government yet, and neither has the cash that was supposed to help with all the replacing. To fix these problems, the Secretary has brought a promise and a promissory note.

The Secretary’s promise is that he will make all the private contractors for voting systems eat the costs of modifying equipment if the federal standards cause further changes. And his promissory note is a nice poster-sized image of a check freshly unwrapped from a Kinko’s/FedEx plastic bag.

Get ready for more quips here, because the big camera-friendly poster of a check is supposed to represent the Secretary’s commitment that all bills incurred by HAVA will be paid by the Secretary in thirty days or less.

“But it’s been more than thirty days!” chuckles the Travis County Clerk. And some folks in the room take this chance to chuckle with her.

“I brought you a check Judge,” says the Secretary trying to stay on message. “And I hope when we present the check, we’ll get our picture taken.”

To which, quips the Judge: “We won’t talk about how long it took to get the check. The check is here.”

Actually, I don’t think the check was there, although the pictures did get taken. According to the press release dated Tuesday from the Secretary’s own office, he wasn’t there to hand over a check. He was there “to discuss ways to facilitate a grant worth over $4.5 million to the county resulting from new federal voting requirements.” If the secretary had actually brought a check, I think his press release would have said so. A plainer reading of facts would suggest that the Secretary had put $4.5 million within thirty days reaching distance, provided that proper procedures are duly followed, etc.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner had only one question for the Secretary after all the pictures had been taken. She asked him to help pass HB 2759, an election reform bill that would lift the cap on the size of voting precincts. Under current law, a precinct can serve no more than 2,000 voters. HB 2759 will raise the limit to 5,000.

Sonleitner explained that growing precincts get expensive when they require new precincts to be drawn and managed. Tell me about growth said the Secretary. Last week he was in Fort Bend County, which is growing at the rate of one or two new precincts per month. There he was also urged to support larger precincts, reports Stephen Palkot of the Herald-Coaster.

Readers of the Texas Civil Rights Review will recall that voters were pouring into Fort Bend County so fast that last November some of them came back to their old Harris County neighborhoods to vote. Republican lawyers called that fraud. Now we also know that Fort Bend County is under stress to accoomodate all its voters anyway.

As for HB 2759 said the Secretary, “I don’t see any issues against that. It sort of streamlines it.”

Lines that are streaming we can easily visualize here at the Texas Civil Rights Review whenever voting precincts are more than doubled in size. But probably that’s not the kind of streamlining backers of the bill have in mind. So it will be our last quip of the day, we promise.

Note: revised from original Mar. 29 version to include links to earlier reports from the tour–gm.

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