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Commissioner El Franco Lee hosts training session for election judges

Presiding and Alternate Election Judges training at Finnegan Community Center Oct 5 2013
Presiding and Alternate Election Judges training at Finnegan Community Center Oct 5 2013photos by Marc Pembroke

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Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee at Finnegan Community Center Oct 5 2013
Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee at Finnegan Community Center Oct 5 2013photo by Marc Pembroke

Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee hosted a training session for Presiding and Alternate Ballot Judges Saturday morning October 5 at the Finnegan Community Center. Representatives of the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collectors Office assisted in updating the ballot judges on the new voter ID law and other administrative changes that will apply to the forthcoming Municipal election on November 15.

Commissioner Lee has made the training an annual tradition, facilitating training for about 200 Presiding and Alternate judges. The County also offers training in other locations and on-line. All Presiding Judges and Alternate judges must complete the three-hour course on election laws, the proper way to certify voters, and every aspect of administrating a local election from set up prior to the election to closing down the election site and delivering the ballots and other documents to the designated drop-off points. In addition, all Presiding Judges, Alternate Judges, and clerks must be trained on setting up, operating, and dismantling the E-slate machines used by voters. E slate training is offered using the machines at designated times at the County facility at.

Presiding Judges and Alternate Judges are appointed by the Tax Assessors office and function as employees of Harris County. However, in most cases, they are selected through the political process. Each of the major parties has a legal structure established by state statute. In every precinct, the party elects a precinct chair, who is responsible for party matters, local caucuses, and assisting with the process of voter identification and recruiting new voters. The local elected precinct chair is normally the Presiding Judge or Alternate Judge for the election. A local chair who is unwilling or unable to serve as a Judge or Alternate Judge agrees in advance to name a local party member willing to serve in that capacity.

Precinct chairs must live in their precinct. If the move outside the precinct they lose their positions as a matter of law. For that reason precinct chair positions are often vacant. In such cases, the County Executive Committee can fill vacancies through its own selection process and by a regular majority vote.

In my case, I lived in Precinct 193 in 2009, and was appointed to fill the vacant republican chair position in 2010, then elected to that position in the following election. In 2012, I moved to precinct 541, where both parties had an elected chair. Shortly thereafter, the republican chair moved from the precinct, and I was asked to apply for appointment to fill the position, and became the appointed republican chair by Executive Committee vote on September 23,2013. I also filed as a candidate for precinct chair for precinct 541 the same day.

The Presiding Judge has the legal responsibility for obtaining the e-slate machines and all election materials, naming the clerks, organizing the local polling place, opening the polls properly, etc. The Alternate Judge is responsible for assisting the process, observing key steps such as opening the e-slate machines, verifying serial numbers, and signing legal supporting documents with the Presiding Judge. If the Presiding Judge becomes incapacitated or otherwise unavailable on election day, the Alternate Judge takes over the administrative process. Otherwise, the Alternate Judge functions as one of the election clerks. All election clerks and the Alternate Judge are paid minimum wage ($8.50 an hour). Presiding Judges receive certain additional fees.

The choice of Presiding Judge or Alternate Judge is also established by statute based on the previous gubernatorial election. The precinct chair of the party that carries the precinct in the gubernatorial election becomes the Presiding Judge. The precinct chair of the party with the second most votes becomes the Alternate Judge. So, precincts that voted for Bill White in 2010 will have democratic Presiding Judge. Precincts that voted for Rick Perry will have a Republican Presiding Judge. In virtually all cases, the Presiding Chair or Alternate Judge will be a democrat or a republican.