Why mail-in ballots are so high in Harris County early voting
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Mail-in ballots exceed in-person voting in a couple of counties. For example, in the first day of voting in Harris County, 3,380 votes were cast in person. Mail-in ballots totaled 10,027. The other big county for mail-in ballots was Tarrant (Fort Worth). On the first day of voting, 2,147 votes were cast in person. An additional 5,477 were mail-in ballots. Harris County politics have evolved in a unique way, a subject that was dealt with at length by Houston attorney Ed Hubbard on the blog bigjollypolitics.com. According to Mr. Hubbard, a major factor, if not THE major factor, in Harris County Republican politics is “slate mailers”–that is, direct mail flyers sent by competing groups with slates of names and check marks for recommended candidates. Some of these flyers are for-profit, pay-to play operations, in which candidates who want to be recommended have to pay to get on the slate mailers. Hubbard writes:
Almost two decades ago, at the dawn of the era of Republican political dominance in Harris County, a civil war broke out in our local party between the groups that had traditionally dominated the party and new activists, many of whom had become involved in politics primarily to promote socially conservative issues. Over the years, this battle led to a contest for political control of our primaries, which spawned the slate mailers that now dominate our primary process. Although little actually remains of the civil war, because there are so few conservatives or Republicans left who are not (to one degree or another) socially conservative, the slate mailers live on, and appear to dictate who will eventually win the local primary. When this all started, many of the new activists had been energized and mobilized by Pat Robertson’s Presidential campaign of 1988, and the groups that formed in the wake of that campaign…. One of the leaders of this movement locally was Dr. Steven Hotze, whose family has been at the vanguard of socially conservative causes for decades. Dr. Hotze formed Conservative Republicans of Harris County and Conservative Republicans of Texas. Dr. Hotze’s Conservative Republicans of Harris County created one of, if not the first, of the local slate mailers of this era. “Slate mailers” are endorsement slates in party primaries, and in the general election, which are typically published by individuals or organizations that are not affiliated with a political party. The mailers present their endorsements in a form that looks like a primary ballot with check marks or an “x” by the name of the candidate being endorsed. These slate cards are made so that they can be torn away from an absentee ballot request form or larger mailer, and be used by a voter at the polls. The mailers often appear to have an official blessing of a party, which they do not have. These for-profit advertisements, with removable slate cards, provide down-ballot candidates with a real, cost-effective service—but at a real cost to the integrity of the system. Remember, that these mailers are simply advertisements—advertisements that pay for the dissemination of one person’s or one organization’s opinion of the candidates. Moreover, because the advertisement fees normally exceed the costs incurred to produce and mail the slate mailer, the purveyor often makes a good living just by telling the public what his personal opinion is. Because of the appearance of these mailers, most voters don’t understand that they are not official evaluations from the local party, but instead, are paid-for propaganda from one person or organization intended to influence the outcome of the primary. The most effective slate mailer in our primary is the for-profit advertisement called The Link Letter. It is printed with red, white and blue colors and black print, in the form of a multi-page political newsletter, and it contains at least two 8 ½ by 11 faux sample ballots with check marks by the names of the endorsed candidates, either of which can be torn out and kept for use when voting. The purveyor of this slate mailer is Terry Lowry, who has a local radio program on a small AM station. Terry is a Republican precinct chair of a precinct north of I-10 in State Senate District 7. Terry charges the candidates for advertisements, and virtually all of the advertisers are candidates who have received his endorsements on the enclosed tear-away ballot. Terry has the most extensive mailing list of the other local slate mailers, and his endorsed candidates have experienced an over 90% success rate in recent primary elections. The second most effective slate mailer, and probably the most effective mailer in primary run-off elections, is Dr. Hotze’s Conservative Republicans of Harris County . One of the reasons this mailer is so effective is it is first sent out as a tear-away attachment to absentee ballot request forms to senior citizens. Because so many local Republican voters are over the age of 65, this tactic is extremely effective to influence how these voters fill out their ballots in down-ballot races. Dr. Hotze is close to a handful of political consultants, most notably Blakemore & Associates. Although Dr. Hotze does not take money for advertising, there is a strong correlation between the candidates he chooses to interview and ultimately endorse, and those who have hired one of the consultants with whom he is close—and this correlation is understood by the candidates. In fact, Alan Blakemore is said to often be present during Dr. Hotze’s interviews of candidates who are running against Blakemore’s candidates. Though Dr. Hotze has been known to endorse candidates who are not represented by Blakemore, or one of the other close consultants, the rarity of such endorsements underscores the perception among many candidates that Conservative Republicans of Harris County amounts to little more than a rubber-stamp for Blakemore’s clients. Before I get to the other slates, I need to briefly discuss the role of one radio station in all of this—KSEV, radio 700. The presence of effective local conservative radio forums in the Houston area is wonderful, and KSEV has provided our candidates with an effective vehicle for getting radio advertising to a conservative base. However, the control of the station by a sitting, and very ambitious State Senator casts a long shadow of out-sized influence over our local party and its primary. When he, or one of the other celebrity politicians on that station, steps into a race either during commentary on a show, or as a voice-over in an ad, more than just a politician’s endorsement is involved—it creates an advertising revenue stream for the Senator. The problem created by this blurring of political influence with personal income is hard to distinguish from the problem created by the for-profit slate mailers. Though the ownership of a clearly political radio station by a very political State Senator is not illegal, it can’t be separated from the entire context of the private “pay for play” culture that now exists in our local primary.
* * * * Hubbard’s article drew back the curtain on the sleazy pay-to-play culture of Harris County Republican politics. It is in serious need of reform, to wrest it from the control of self-appointed bosses with a profit motive.