San Antonio voters Deborah Martin-Levoy and Lynn Rutland stood under the boiling sun angrily wielding their voter registration certificate to reporters crowded around them. "It makes me really mad! I know that my signature was okay. I wonder how many more valid signatures they tossed out?" Martin-Levoy said.
She and Rutland had joined Save Our Aquifer (SOA) representatives at Martin Luther King Plaza on a hot, sweltering afternoon on June 19. Charles English, an East Side activist and member of SOA, pointed out the irony that on that day of commemorating the historical meaning of Juneteenth: the day — three years after the Emancipation Proclamation — African-Americas learned they were no longer slaves. More than 135 years later, San Antonians still have to struggle to exercise their rights as voters, he noted, "against an unresponsive and arrogant city government representing the interests of corporations."
After the City Clerk's office tossed out more than 29,000 signatures for allegedly being invalid, on June 25 SOA filed a federal lawsuit, accusing the City of violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Texas Constitution, and state election code. (PGA opponents had turned in 79,000 signatures.) The suit also alleges that the City used a computer-referenced method to validate the signatures, which erroneously disenfranchised thousands of voters, including a disproportionate number of ethnic, racial, and language minorities.
Federal Judge Fred Biery has issued a temporary restraining order preventing city officials from acting on the PGA Village until the opponents' lawsuit can be reviewed. A hearing is set for Friday, July 5 at 9 a.m. at the Federal Courthouse, 655 E. Durango.
SOA showed evidence that the City used a faulty system to disqualify more than nearly 37 percent of those who had signed a petition to put the issue to a referendum. City Clerk Norma Rodriguez had assured the Council that signatures had been "checked and double checked" manually and by using the Bexar County Voter Registration computer data bank. After her report, the Council effusively praised Rodriguez for her "great efficiency and dedication on this project."
Yet, SOA's Julianna Murphy presented several other specific cases that proved otherwise. For example, Benita Palacios correctly entered all of her personal information on the petition. But, the City Clerk's staff mistyped her date of birth; instead of March 21, 1932, they entered March 31, 1932. Palacios' signature was disqualified.
Martin-Levoy's signature was disqualified because the Clerk's staff erroneously typed her address when checking it against the data bank of the Bexar County Voter Registration list. Her address was typed as 1143 Avante Ave. although on the petition she had clearly printed her correct address: 1143 Avant Ave.
Rutland was similarly disqualified because of a typing error — despite the fact that the Bexar County voters list confirmed that her name was logged in the system under Voter Registration No. 269154 — which she had also printed on the petition.
SOA reviewers estimate that as many as 80 percent of the disqualified signatures should have been approved, and the original petitions should have been sufficient to force the Council to call for a public referendum.
Mayor Ed Garza and Rodriguez insisted that the verification process was "fair and professional." On June 17, Rodriguez announced that 3,812 signatures would be credited because they had been wrongly disqualified due to a "computer software problem." The final tally showed that PGA opponents still needed 9,681 signatures to clinch the referendum — in 10 days. They collected almost three times as many: 26,000.
SOA has demanded that the City correct all of its mistakes and recognize the remaining valid signatures. Several SOA and COPS/Metro representatives met with City Attorney Andrew Martin to show him why the review of signatures had been flawed and to ask for his help in getting them validated. Martin simply promised to "talk with Mrs. Rodriguez."
Some PGA Village opponents said they believe that Mayor Garza and Lumbermen's hoped that by galvanizing the Anglo community within the San Antonio city limits to support the golf mecca, the petition drive would fail because the African-American and Latino voters would not bother to sign the petition.
However, that divisive strategy back-fired. People from all parts of San Antonio opposed the PGA Village and signed the petition, although the highest number of voters was from the East, West, and South Side.
Observers are comparing this petition process to events in Florida during the 2000 presidential elections. There, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris blamed "the ballot system" for the state's disenfranchisement of thousands of African-American and Latino voters. In San Antonio, the City government is claiming that "the computer software" did it.
Yet at next week's initial hearing, City officials, not the computer, will be the ones on the hot seat.
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