After many months and miles traveled, politics can be a game of inches

After many months and miles traveled, politics can be a game of inches

“I truly believe we are fighting for the heart and soul of our country,” Jefferson County Democratic Chairman Cade Bernsen said of the passion he has for getting out the vote in the Nov. 8 General Election. “This is a defining moment for the future of America.”

Jefferson County Republican Party Chairman Garrett Peel, while of a differing opinion as to which candidates would take the nation (and Southeast Texas) in the right direction, does share a belief with his political opposite – only voters can ensure that America’s democracy is on the right path.

Presidential elections always draw heavy participation, but Jefferson County Clerk and election administrator Carolyn Guidry and her chief deputy clerk, Teresa Goodness, report that voter turnout has definitely risen this term over prior years. Early election locations and countywide options are part of the reason for the uptick, Guidry said, but mail-in ballots are also adding large numbers to voter participation tallies.

As of Nov. 1, according to Guidry’s office, more than 50,000 of Jefferson County’s 149,203 registered voters had already voted in the pending election – with more than 46,000 of those voters showing up in person to do so within the first eight days. The number of in-person early voters has definitely increased steadily over the last several elections, according to information from the County Clerk’s office. In the 2012 General Election, after the first eight days of early voting, 44,061 voters had cast ballots. In the 2008 General Election, after the first eight days of early voting, 38,283 voters had cast ballots.

“For the 2016 General Election, after the first eight days, 46,430 voters have cast ballots in person at our 11 early voting locations,” Goodness reported. “So our in-person voting turnout is up slightly over the last presidential election.”

The real increase in voter turnout is coming with the postal carrier.

“Our mail ballots are up significantly over the 2008 General Election when 2,589 voters returned a mail ballot by the end of the election, and over the 2012 General Election when 3,119 voters returned a mail ballot by the end of the election,” Guidry said. “Our mail ballot returns so far for this election are 4,302, and voters who applied for a mail ballot by the deadline of Oct. 28, 2016, still have until Election Day to return their ballots if they reside in the United States. Military and overseas voters have until six days after the election to return their ballots if they are postmarked by Election Day.”

Goodness and Guidry explained that a 2013 state law authorized annual mail ballot applications for voters 65 years of age or older or for voters who are disabled, which allows these voters to apply one time and receive a ballot for every election in the calendar year in which the application is submitted.

“This legislation has resulted in greater numbers of mail ballot applications being submitted over the course of the year,” Guidry reported, all of which undergo specialized scrutiny.

“Under state law,” according to the county clerk staffer, “voters who apply for mail ballots are not required to show photo identification. The applicant’s information such as address and date of birth are checked against the voter registration database to see if the voter is an active registered voter. If registered and the completed form meets the other requirements, the voter is mailed a ballot.”

More checks and balances kick in when returning the ballot.

“When returning the ballot, the voter is required to sign the back of the envelope, and that signature is compared to the signature on the voter’s mail ballot application,” she said. “It is the job of the Early Voting Ballot Board to review the returned mail ballots and accept them for counting or to reject them as required by law. If a mail ballot is rejected, the Early Voting Ballot Board will send the voter a letter explaining why.”

According to Goodness, the Early Voting Ballot Board is comprised of members of both major political parties whose names are submitted by the Democratic and Republican Party Chairs to the Jefferson County Commissioner’s Court for appointment.

“Any suspected cases of fraud are turned over to the sheriff’s office for investigation,” Guidry said, adding that, “Fraud is extremely rare.”

Rarer still, the county clerk reports, are substantiated claims of machines changing people’s votes – although mail-in ballot fraud and machine malfunction are concerns Guidry and Goodness hear from those they serve.

“A few voters have expressed concerns about straight party votes,” Guidry explained, “but after investigation it was discovered these voters had deselected their candidate of choice.

“This is user error – not an issue with the machines.”

Furthermore, Guidry added, “Some points to remember about our voting machines” are that “no Hart system has ever had a vote-flipping issue or automatic-deselecting issue. Ever.” And the eSlate is not a touch screen device, so “any reference to voters seeing irregularities when interacting with the device by touching the screen are false,” as the machine not only records just information input into the device, but it also alerts voters who vote straight party if they deselect their vote to vote for another candidate.

Anyone still uncomfortable with the machines will be happy to note that each polling location is manned by voting technicians on staff to assist poll workers with any technical issues, and each polling location is provided a cell phone to remain in communication with the county clerk and voter registration offices.

All in-person voters must possess an acceptable form of photo ID, but Goodness said the acceptable form of photo identification (driver’s license, state-issued ID card, passport, handgun license, military ID, voter ID, citizenship papers) may be expired up to four years. Guidry added that voters who do not possess one of the forms of acceptable photo ID and cannot reasonably obtain one may present a supporting form of identification and execute a Reasonable Impediment Declaration stating that the voter is the same person who personally appeared at the polling place, and stating that the voter is casting a ballot while voting in-person. The seven forms of supporting ID allowed for this alternate voting method are a voter registration certificate, certified birth certificate, current utility bill, bank statement, government or personal check, or out of state photo ID. Social Security cards, public college or university IDs without an address, state/federal employee ID cards without an address, or library cards without an address do not constitute acceptable forms of ID.

With early voting locations open all over Southeast Texas, Goodness said taking advantage of the pre-Election Day calm before the storm reduces stress on both the poll workers and the voters.

“It’s a win for everyone,” she said.

“Voting is convenient in Jefferson County whether you vote during Early Voting or on Election Day, since you can vote at any polling location,” Guidry added. “No more excuses of going to the wrong precinct to vote because we have Vote Centers. Your ballot is your voice in every election, and you should want to be heard. It’s your choice and right, and it does matter.”

Aside from the hotly contested presidential race with former First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton taking charge on the Democratic ticket against a fired-up Republican candidate, businessman Donald Trump, Jefferson County voters will also pick a U.S. representative between Republican incumbent Randy Weber and Democrat Michael Cole, and a state senator between Republican incumbent Brandon Creighton and Libertarian John West. Full ballots of candidates are vying for various courts of appeal and even the state Supreme Court, but local level contests are dominating voter interest.

60th District Court Judge candidate Justin Sanderson was the only contender to not draw an opponent as multiple benches came up for election including the 136th Judicial District, which is being sought by Baylor Wortham (D) and Dana Timaeus (R), and County Court at Law No. 2, with Luke Nichols (R) and Terrance Holmes (D) hoping to fill the unexpired seat left by late Judge Lupe Flores and presided over by Judge Cory Crenshaw until Dec. 3. The battle for sheriff is also bringing voters to the polls, as Zena Stephens (D) and Ray Beck (R) work diligently to secure the position.

Uncontested races on the ballot have declared winners in County Tax Assessor-Collector Allison Nathan Getz (R); County Commissioner, Precinct No. 1, Eddie Arnold (R); County Commissioner, Precinct No. 3, Michael Shane Sinegal (D); Justice of the Peace, Precinct No. 1, Place 1, K.W. “Ken” Dollinger (D); Constable, Precinct No. 1, Earl White (D); Constable, Precinct No. 2, Christopher L. Bates (D); Constable, Precinct No. 4, Bryan Werner (R); Constable, Precinct No. 6, Dana A. Baker Sr. (D); Constable, Precinct No. 7, Robert “Bobby” Adams (R); and Constable, Precinct No. 8, Eddie Collins (D).

Jefferson County Democratic Party Chair Cade Bernsen said that the races are always too close to rest on the sidelines until after all is said and done, and he and other Democrats will be spending the last days of early voting leading up to Election Day trying to get voters to the polls.

“We’ll be knocking on doors, making phone calls, making sure to get the word out to vote,” he said. “We’re out there just trying to touch people – shake their hand, let them know their vote matters; their vote counts.”

Previous presidential elections support Bernsen’s notion of close calls. In 2008, the presidential election ended in Jefferson County with a total of 87,385 ballots cast, with fewer than 2,000 votes separating winner Barack Obama (44,880) and John McCain (42,905). The race was narrowed even more in 2012, with Obama garnering 44,668 votes and Mitt Romney taking 43,242 votes.

Should his candidates of choice not come out on top, Bernsen said he will support the winner in their service to Southeast Texas.

“All the candidates should be honored for what they’re doing. It’s called ‘public service’ for a reason. They take their own time, energy, money, to do this. … It’s emotionally taxing, tiring, and they do this for a chance to serve us.

“After the election, we should come together as a community. At the end of the day, you have to leave it on the field. Hate-filled rhetoric doesn’t help anything, and that doesn’t unify communities.”

And while it does matter who you vote for, what matters most is that you vote, Bernsen said.

“One day, people will look back – maybe when their kids are studying this election, which will always be remembered as ‘The Trump Election – and they’ll be asked, ‘Where did you stand?’

“History is going to remember what happens here.”

 

Voters can visit www.JeffersonElections.com or call (409) 835-8760 for more election information.

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