The continuing investigation into the origin of the fire that destroyed all of Harris County’s voting machines has not arrived at a conclusion. I’m not going to jump the gun. But I will say this: If arson proves to be the cause, the feds are going to be swarming into Harris County. With early voting less than two months away, the election has been seriously disrupted. If the fire was deliberately set, the immediate question is, who benefits from consequences of the fire, which will be long lines, changes in polling places, tens of thousand of people trying to figure out where they go to vote, and, possibly, the use of paper ballots and all the uncertainties that go with them? We could see a replay of Florida 2000.
No doubt the Democrats will feel that they are the losers in the fire. Bill White has been counting on a big turnout in Harris County to propel him to victory. The disruptions will surely depress turnout, but you can argue that two ways: (1) Republicans are more motivated than Democrats in this election cycle, so if turnout is depressed, Perry is damaged more than White. Or, (2) The confusion about polling places is more likely to depress turnout among minorities, who, of course, are likely Democratic voters.
Right now we are just at the beginning of this story. If the cause of the fire turns out to be bad wiring, much of the drama evaporates. But if it is arson, look out. Already Democrats have expressed concern that the courthouse Republicans who control the voting system will compress the number of polling places, making it more difficult for Democratic voters to find where to cast their ballots. This could get really ugly.