in Houston, Texas
Walker Co. officials say they had always planned to release electronic election records, despite county’s appeal to AG
Wednesday, Mar 28, 2012, 11:21AM CST
By Steve Miller
I voted

The Walker County District Attorney’s office knew it all along: the law changed regarding the public record status of electronic voting records.

Or did it?

We wrote earlier this week about the efforts of the Huntsville Item to obtain the electronic records in order to compare them to the actual ballots for Huntsville city elections in 2010 and 2011. The county handles the city elections.

The county handed over the ballots but refused to give up the electronic records, claiming state law required they be kept for 22 months.

But a new law that took effect in September – prior to the November 2011 city election – dictated that for contests that don’t involve a federal race, electronic records can only be held for six months.

Now, the DA’s office is saying it had always wanted to hand over the electronic records in accordance with the new law, but, well, it just wanted to make sure with an appeal to the state Attorney General’s office. And when the Item stated in a headline that the AG ruled against the county, Walker County District Attorney David Weeks and county tax assessor Diana McRae, who is also the voter registrar, issued a statement contesting the wording of the headline.

The statement claimed that the AG’s office did not rule against the county “as the Item’s headline suggested.”

But actually, it clearly ruled against the county on at least two counts, according to the ruling, which states, “You claim the remaining requested information is excepted from disclosure under section 552.101 of the Government Code.” The county had already – and correctly – turned over the ballots.

That passage of state law is cited in almost every government body’s referral to the AG’s office. It is a simple legal catch-all that is aimed at weeding out information that is clearly not within the definition of public information. It is what the Walker County DA’s office used in successfully turning back the Item early last year in a ruling in which the Item asked for electronic records for an election.

In the more recent dispute, the DA’s office offered up a dubious deal that it felt would affect the public nature of the electronic records. As noted in today’s Item: “The city of Huntsville and Walker County entered into a contract for election services in 2011 before the change in the election code for nonfederal elections, and that contract stipulated a 22-month preservation period.
”

The county used this in its argument to keep from releasing the records.

But the AG noted in its recent ruling that the city and county did not show that it had “the express statutory authority to make such a promise.”

The county clearly missed the effect of the new law. Instead of admitting that, it issued a statement contesting a headline.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of 'I voted' button by flickr user finn, used via a Creative Commons license.

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