Bettencourt office functions effectively (how scandalous!)

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Harris County’s most popular Republican officeholder, Paul Bettencourt, comes under a bit of fire today in the Chronicle, apparently for doing an aspect of his job effectively:

Bettencourt voluntarily pursues voters to update their registrations after they move from one Harris County location to another. Using driver’s license address changes and other government records in a pioneering project, his staff sends letters to such voters — about 100,000 every summer — encouraging them to update their voter registrations.

The Texas Department of Public Safety is required to give driver’s license applicants a chance to register to vote. In fact, sign-ups under the so-called “motor voter law” account for 61 percent of voter registrations in Harris County annually. Another 21 percent comes from registration forms mailed to the county by voters.

A mere 13 percent of registrations comes from the 2,700 Harris County residents deputized by the county as roaming registrars or from voters signing up in person at county offices.

Bettencourt said his 35 registration employees attend an average of one civic event per day to sign up new voters or deputize new registrars. The figures show that registrations pushed by candidates, political parties and nonpartisan groups, such as the League of Women Voters, ACORN and Texans Together, are not the dominant force for expanding the voter roll, despite their sweat and intentions.

Critics say those organizations’ efforts and voter registration in general would improve if Bettencourt would focus more on expanding the voter roll rather than reducing it.

“The county is not known for aggressive outreach efforts to register voters,” Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Gerald Birnberg said. “It is well known for aggressive efforts to purge voter rolls.”

Clearly, Harris County takes a lead role in the state for cross-checking government records to remove from the rolls voters who leave the county, are convicted of felonies, are discovered to be noncitizens (80 of those since January 2006) or die. Bettencourt said that, following state law and interpretations by the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, his staff also is ahead of most of the state in using government records to challenge whether voters or registration applicants have claimed a real residential address.

The office signs up new voters, pursues changes of address, and purges the rolls of those no longer qualified to vote here. What a scandal!

It’s not at all clear that a million stories like this are going to help Bettencourt’s inexperienced opponent very much. Most people who deal with Bettencourt’s office realize that it functions at a much higher level than most government bureaucracies, regardless of the letter beside his name or whether he evangelizes on KDAN-700 radio. Even if this is the election that breaks the Republican stranglehold on Harris County politics, one suspects it will take a mighty Dem tsunami to sweep Bettencourt out.

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Kevin Whited
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