HOUSTON - As Houston s city secretary pores through almost 5,200 pages of petitions signed by opponents of Mayor Annise Parker s equal rights ordinance, supporters have adopted an interesting tactic: posting all of the signed petitions on the Internet, inviting citizens to pore through the paperwork and search for evidence of voter fraud.
Was your name placed on the petition without your permission? asks a headline on the homepage at heropetition.com.
The website claims it has found evidence that the petitions bear names of some voters who didn t actually offer their signatures. It also advises people who discover their names have been falsely placed on the petition to sign an affidavit and send it to the city secretary s office.
There is documented evidence of deliberate voter fraud that may actually put petition signers at risk of criminal prosecution ... the website says.
Opponents of the ordinance, who found out about it during a city council committee meeting on the prospect of a referendum, suggested the people who set up the website had a more sinister motive.
There was testimony today about, you know, You can find out if your neighbor is against the ordinance, said Jonathan Saenz of Austin-based Texas Values, which opposes the ordinance.
So I hope we don t see homosexual advocates start targeting people and trying to name them and trying to put pressure on them and force them out of their job and somehow cause a negative effect on their livelihood. We ve seen that happen in other cases across the country. And I hope that s not what we see in Houston.
After that meeting, the lobby outside Houston City Council chambers echoed with arguments between people on both sides of this debate. Supporters of the ordinance, many of them activists in gay-lesbian-transgender politics, scoffed at the notion the website was some sort of attempt to intimidate people who signed the petition.
I just find it incredibly ironic that a group whose MO was to track down gay people outside of bars and try to get them fired from their jobs for decades are now suddenly worried about people losing their jobs, said Kristen Capps, a supporter of the equal rights ordinance.
Meanwhile, the Parker Administration announced that if enough signatures are verified and a referendum is mandated, the mayor plans to schedule it for this coming November, putting it on the same ballot as statewide races. That would almost certainly boost Houston s voter turnout not only in elections for governor and lieutenant governor, but also in down ballot races for everything from judges to district attorney.
Even Democrats generally concede a 2014 referendum on this hot-button issue would probably give an advantage to Republicans, although some suggested it could also motivate younger, Democratic leaning voters favoring gay rights.
Conservative Republican voters care more about these issues than more liberal, younger, infrequent voters, said Bob Stein, the Rice University political scientist and KHOU analyst. So if you re talking about a single issue that might bring someone to the polls in November election, it s clearly the opponents who have the momentum here.
Whoever the referendum date favors, Stein suggests both sides face a challenge educating voters about the ballot.
One other thing to remember: This is not a candidate race, it s a referendum, Stein said. It s at the bottom of the ballot. Voters in Texas get to vote straight ticket; over two-thirds do so. Many voters come in, vote Democratic or Republican, and forget there s anything else on the bottom of the ballot.
Who are those voters who forget, who fade out? Stein asks. Democratic voters.
Both sides in the debate said they can live with any referendum date.
We re confident that the voters of Houston are going to decide this issue in favor of protecting women and children and our basic rights, said Dave Welch, leader of the Houston Area Pastors Council. So whether that happens on the ballot this year or 2015 really is secondary.
Houston s city attorney said the city secretary will probably finish reviewing and counting the signatures on the petitions by the end of next week.