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Outcome of District 48 race could decide balance of power in Texas House

Thursday, November 4, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The cliffhanger election between Democratic incumbent Donna Howard and Republican challenger Dan Neil for a seat in the 81st Texas Legislature has implications far beyond District 48 in Western Travis County, political observers said on Wednesday. The outcome could either give Republicans a bulletproof majority or hand Democrats enough clout to force compromise on major issues.


When the dust settled on Election Night, Howard had a 15-vote edge over Neil out of more than 51,000 votes. However, Travis County Elections Office officials say they have provisional and mail-in ballots to count – though they are not sure exactly how many – before declaring a winner in the race.  And the losing candidate is likely to demand a recount.


If Neil is added to the tally in the House – bringing the total number of Republicans to 100 – it would mean that the GOP members would have no incentive to negotiate with the minority party if they choose to present a united front. Under legislative rules, Constitutional amendments must pass by a two-thirds vote of the House. A two-thirds vote also would also allow amendments to be added on third reading and will be likely critical in getting a controversial “smaller government” budget out of the House and to the Senate.


However, if Howard hangs on, it would give the Democrats 51 votes that could block the passage of most major pieces of legislation, if they chose to do so.


After the polls closed on Tuesday, Republicans held 99 seats, while Democrats had won 50, making the undecided District 48 seat the lynchpin to power in the upcoming 81st Legislature.


The head count on the House floor could also have an impact on who is chosen Speaker of the House during the next session. While sitting Speaker Joe Straus announced Tuesday night that a majority of the House was pledged to vote for him, Rep. Warren Chisum, a long-time social conservative, says he’s still in the Speaker’s race.


Howard claimed victory on Election Night after all 210 precincts had been counted, but Neil has not yet conceded the race.  Late Wednesday morning, Howard issued a three-paragraph email release, saying that she “look(s) forward to going back to work next legislative session to tackle the challenges facing our community and our state.”


“Clearly this was a close election, with a highly polarized electorate,” she continued. “I realize there will be multiple interpretations of the message voters delivered in last night’s election, but I think one message is crystal clear: voters are tired of partisan politics, and they expect Democrats and Republicans to come together to do what’s best for Texas.”


Neil said he was not ready to call it quits.


“It will be several days before every legal vote has been received and counted, including the votes of our servicemen and women defending our freedom overseas,” he said. “After campaigning for this seat for a full year, I want to ensure every legal vote is counted through a fair and transparent process. Once that process has concluded, we will determine the appropriate course of action in order to ensure the will of the electorate is honored.”


Provisional ballots are used when a voter’s eligibility is in question. They are reviewed after the election to make a determination if they are legitimate. Mail ballots are due by 7pm on Election Night for Travis County residents living in the United States. Overseas ballots must be received five days after Election Day, though the county can extend that deadline if it falls, as it does in a general election, on a weekend.


The provisional ballots will be submitted by the Travis County Clerk to the county’s Voter Registration Office. There, they will be reviewed to determine if the ballots belong to registered voters and, if so, which precinct those voters are registered in.


They will then be passed on to the county’s final ballot board, which will review them and determine if the votes should be counted. That board will also count the late-arriving mail in ballots. The overseas ballots can come from military families or Travis County residents who are vacationing or living in another country.


“The mail ballot is just what it sounds like,” Democratic political consultant Mark Littlefield told In Fact Daily. “The provisional is if you showed up to vote during early vote or (on) election day and if your early vote location or your election day location wasn’t where you thought it was…you can vote with this and we’ll mark it provisional and when the election’s is over we’ll all look at it.”


Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir is expected to make an official announcement about how many outstanding ballots there are in the next two days. At that point, the clerk’s office should also have a better idea about how long it will be until there is a final tally.


Any requests for a recount would come after the late ballot count is concluded.


Howard, who has held the District 48 seat for two terms, holds degrees in both nursing and health education and worked as a critical care nurse and an educator before her election in 2006. Neil is a former football player at the University of Texas and in the NFL, and was a sport-talk radio host prior to running for the District 48 seat.

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