Election Contest Committee Sides With Howard

The House Election Contest Committee unanimously voted today to uphold Rep. Will Hartnett's determination that Donna Howard won the long-disputed House District 48 seat. Committee members said Republican Dan Neil did not provide clear and convincing evidence to win. If Neil decides to challenge the committee's vote, it will go to the House floor. 

Neil ran against incumbent Howard, D-Austin, for the HD-48 seat during the November 2010 general election. After he lost by 16 votes, Neil asked for a recount and lost again by 12 votes. He took the matter to the House, where Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, appointed Hartnett, R-Dallas, to preside over the debate. Hartnett reviewed the testimony last month and urged the committee to accept his recommendation that Howard won the seat by four votes.

The committee, chaired by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, heard closing arguments from both sides today. Neil's lawyer and former state Rep. Joe Nixon focused on five voters — two who lived outside the county and three who lived outside of the district during the election season. According to current statutes, residents are allowed to vote in their individual district if they reside in the same county and fill out a statement of residence. The three voters, Nixon said, did not fill out a statement of residence.

"It's like having a suspended driver's license," he said. "You don't really have one."

Nixon said Neil was bearing the burden of human error, and that it was up to the committee to fix those mistakes if the true outcome could be ascertained — and, if not, to declare the election void.

Howard's attorney, Randall "Buck" Wood, said Neil was asking for legislators to ignore existing law and make new law.

"They are simply asking you not to ask a judicial body, but to act as a legislative and political body," Wood said. "But you're sitting here as judge and jury."

Hartnett said the only issue in question is where the individual actually lives. 

"If we open the door to strict application to these requirements, we might as well allow re-dos for every time an election is this close," he said.

After the committee vote, Neil said he was not surprised about the outcome, but about the unanimous vote. Going into today's committee meeting, Neil said his team leaned toward taking the matter to the House floor, but he is likely to finalize that decision tomorrow.

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