Observations about the fire: an e-mail from a Harris County election official
Mon August 30, 2010 4:30 pm

The sender is a Democratic election official whom I knew when we were students at Rice University. These are his observations. I have edited some of them to remove material that I would describe as “over the top.” He writes:

I cannot speak publicly or for attribution from a partisan or official perspective right now. Actually, I am not sure I have a partisan perspective on this. It is a matter of the profound complicity of both party establishments – the ones we both find more alike than not.

This is an outrage by any patriotic standard I can think of. It is not enough that the cronies in our City-County government stuff people in jail and set up a death-penalty machine based on junk-science and systematic evidence-tampering. Behind their unctuous blather, they are contemptuous of and careless with elections. As others note, the GOP establishment fears their voters and the Democratic establishment does not want to have anything to do with theirs. Trust me, voters sense this.

So, the possibilities here in Harris County range from arson to what BP has taught us to refer to as gross negligence.

No elected official from either party should be able to wring their hands and wonder “who could have known?” For all the hoopla bout “growth,” we are working in Harris County within mid-eighties budget constraints for elections. Actually, the “elections industry” has been turned from a “cost-center” to a non-partisan “profit-center” for our debt-ridden, predatory government.

This has been a catastrophe waiting to happen since 2004, when I started complaining about storing uncounted ballots in the broom closet but calling it a “vault”. That is the whole story of the facility known by those of us as use it as the “Ballot Barn” at the “Dog Pound”. But, Commissioners Court has a fine-sounding label today: They call it the “Election Technology Center”. Yeah, right. They could save money on signage by calling it a sham.

By whatever label, it is just one metal building designed to hold the old Shoup voting machines. There used to be four of them, but the others were sold off to cronies many, many scandals ago, and everything needed to conduct anything but ballot-by-mail was stuffed into the one remaining building on cheap land no crony could commercialize. Even the ballot-by-mail department is shoved into a corner of the 4th floor….

The building beyond Fifth Ward has a great slab that can hold tons of heavy machinery, fork-lifts, and so on. But, it is now filled with wooden shelving, pallets, partitions, a false ceiling, plastic, cardboard, packing material, and … those computer batteries that get hot and catch fire.

Also, there are your sometime convict labor, and smokers, but none of the fire detection and suppression equipment that is required for the mission-critical electronic equipment and the high operational pace of election season. The County Clerk says the building had sprinklers, but she is not sure they worked. Indeed, they were probably shut off. You do not use water on electronic equipment that is stored in cardboard boxes. That could ruin everything even without a fire.

It does not take and, indeed, is not likely to require a “conspiracy” to burn-up all the voting machines and all the much more complex on-line ballot-qualification equipment on Canino Road. Yes, that is where everything required to conduct anything but absentee voting is stored. The most valuable and essential equipment is stored in cardboard boxes and wooden “goats”. The flashy stuff featured in promotional material is stored in plastic or aluminum cases that look snazzy and cost a lot: But, they burn like crazy.

All it takes is a cigarette flipped into a corner of half of the building filled with cardboard boxes and packing to start a smoldering fire that would “flash-over” in the wee hours of the morning. The wooden building inside of a steel one is perfect for the kind of fire that causes plastic to turn into flammable gas and aluminum to catch fire.

Forget building codes, replacement cost insurance and business continuity plans, or even rinky-dink fire inspections. No, the perpetually incumbent Commissioners’ Court “don’ need no stinkin’ elections” and spend as little as possible on critical personnel, facilities, and professional staff. They got themselves that general-purpose “sovereign immunity” – also complacent, docile Democrats, especially in the City of Houston, who pay a huge fraction of the cost of elections by writing a blank check and cowering at what skeleton [city secretary] Anna Russell might pull out of her closet, if any one of them dared to criticize her cronies and patrons at the Courthouse.

Just don’t call this a conspiracy: This catastrophic failure of what should be responsible, two-party government is “hiding in plain sight”.

So, what would the feds do? We don’t even have a US Attorney here. If we did, at least one of the prospective candidates for that office would know what to do with this fire – a more direct threat to republican democracy than even the Reichstag fire.

* * * *

As you can see, my correspondent can get carried away at times. But his description of the warehouse, and of the indifference of county government, rings true.

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