In the 22nd District of Texas — Tom DeLay’s old district — workers for Republican write-in candidate Shelley Sekula Gibbs are handing out pamphlets that warn DON’T LET NICK LAMPSON AND HIS LIBERAL DEMOCRAT ALLIES TAKE AWAY YOUR CHOICE THIS ELECTION. The handout lays out instructions for writing in Gibbs’s name, plus the urgent directive: REMEMBER ON TUESDAY NOVEMBER 7, VOTE FOR SHELLEY SEKULA GIBBS FOR U.S. REPRESENTATIVE TWICE!
The TWICE! part refers to the fact that, to fully support Sekula-Gibbs, people who want to vote for her have to first vote for her to finish out the last couple of months of DeLay’s term — she’s on the ballot for that — and then write in her name to vote for her to be the next full-term congressperson from the district.
That’s where things get complicated. The phrase “write-in” is not entirely accurate in this race. In most of the precincts in the 22nd District, voters won’t write anything. Instead, they will work on a machine — called the Hart InterCivic Voting System — in which they will be required to turn a wheel to select letters on a screen. To vote for Sekula-Gibbs, they will be required to select S-H-E-L-L-E-Y-SPACE-S-E-K-U-L-A-SPACE-G-I-B-B-S, pressing “Enter” after each letter or space.
It does not take a prophet to see that there will likely be some irregular entries from people trying to vote for Sekula-Gibbs. If the race is close, there will be intense fights over every variation of her name entered into the Hart InterCivic system.
What will be accepted as a legitimate vote and what won’t? Texas law says only that “A vote on an office or measure shall be counted if the voter’s intent is clearly ascertainable…” What that will mean in practice is not entirely clear. It seems likely that obvious misspellings of Sekula-Gibbs’s name will count, as will short versions like “S GIBBS.” On the other hand, in a close contest, Republicans and Democrats might end up fighting over every vote.
“There is no requirement for the parties to be involved, but we have a board called the Early Voting Ballot Board, made up of Democrats and Republicans,” says David Beirne, spokesman for the Harris County Clerk’s office, which covers part of Houston and is a big part of the 22nd District. “We’re also going to have one Democrat and one Republican review them, and the tie-breaking vote goes to the county clerk, who is an elected Republican in Harris County.”
Beirne explains that officials cannot comment before Election Day about what variations on Sekula-Gibbs’s name will be acceptable; that would amount to giving voters guidance. So what will happen is, when officials begin counting the votes, they will go over each variation one-by-one. As each is accepted or rejected — a process that will start this weekend with the examination of early votes — it will be entered into the computer system to accept or kick out any identical versions of the name that show up in later counting. Even with that, Tuesday could be a long night.
What is frustrating for Republicans is that, if Sekula-Gibbs’s name were on the ballot, the race would be a blowout, at least according to a Houston Chronicle poll published on October 30. When the paper asked, “If the election for Congress were held today and the candidates were Democrat Nick Lampson, Republican Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, and Libertarian Bob Smither [the third name on the ballot], for whom would you vote?” 50 percent of those polled chose Sekula-Gibbs, versus 33 percent for Lampson and four percent for Smither. (Twelve percent said they weren’t sure who they would support.)
When the paper asked, “If the election for Congress were held today and the candidates were Democrat Nick Lampson, Libertarian Bob Smither, and a ‘write-in’ candidate, for whom would you vote?” 36 percent said Lampson, versus 35 percent for the “write-in” candidate. (Smither again got four percent, and 25 percent said they weren’t sure.)
Sekula-Gibbs’s supporters were greatly encouraged by the poll results. At the very least, the survey showed that if the campaign can continue to tell people how to vote for Sekula-Gibbs — if they can reduce that 25 percent who say they’re not sure but who might simply by the write-in issue — her vote total will likely go up. There’s no reason it shouldn’t; the district is clearly conservative. In the Chronicle poll, 52 percent of those surveyed described themselves as conservative or very conservative, while 14 percent described themselves as liberal or very liberal. (Twenty-nine percent called themselves moderates.)
“I think people are very concerned, and they want to keep a Republican in Congress representing District 22,” says Lisa Dimond, Sekula-Gibbs’s campaign manager. “This is a very strong Republican district.”
Democrats know that, too. So recently, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $50,000 on a mass-mailing in the race — not to promote Lampson but to promote a minor Republican write-in candidate named Don Richardson. The mailer noted that Richardson supported tough immigration laws, the Patriot Act, and warrantless wiretapping — all positions a Republican might want to vote for. Of course, doing so would take write-in votes away from Sekula-Gibbs, which was the point of the mailing. Republicans call the DCCC move “desperate” and a “dirty trick,” but worry it might succeed in splitting the write-in vote.
Still, the miracle is that this race is competitive. After all of DeLay’s troubles, and after the court decision that forbade the Republican party from placing Sekula-Gibbs’s name on the ballot, and after the technical difficulties of writing in a candidate’s name, not to mention the fact that Lampson has a huge fundraising advantage — well, to have the race be very close, even in a Republican district, is quite an accomplishment. Now, Sekula-Gibbs’s supporters believe they can actually win on Election Day.
— Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President — and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.