The power of voting: 1996 squeeker tested county’s punch card system

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

It took only 10 votes.

Three years before the famous hanging chads punch card debacle in Florida, Brazoria County had it’s own close call, but the outcome was a lot different.

Not different in a way that the punch cards created major controversy, like in Florida in 2000. The courts did not step in on this one, If they had, there would not have been anything for them to rule on.

It was 1996, and State Rep. Jack Harris of Pearland decided against seeking another term. That left the field wide open, and four candidates on the Republican side ran in the primaries.

Dianne Hensley finished first with 28.2 percent of the vote. She then faced the second-place finisher in the run-offs.

This is when the fun started.

Dennis Bonnen received 2,706 votes, and Arch Hartwell “Beaver” Aplin, III, finished with 2,696 votes, just 10 less than Bonnen. Dee Allen finished fourth.

Bonnen, it appeared, would face Hensley in the run-offs, but even back then, there had been talk about how the punch card system is not always accurate.

This was four years before George W. Bush was declared the winner in the close presidential race with Al Gore after two weeks of ballot examination in Florida, which also at the time used the punch card method of voting. “Hanging chads” became a phrase Americans heard repeated again and again in election news reports. Then, an intervention from the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the counting and ended the race. That awarded Florida’s Electoral College votes to Bush, which were enough to win the presidency.

Even in 1996, Brazoria County was looking into changing the way votes are cast here, but for that election, the punch card machines were once again fired up.

County Clerk Dolly Bailey was in charge of the whole process. Before her office took over the vote counting, it was handled by the Mosquito Control District. It would take a long time to explain why it was originally set up that way, so I’ll save it for another time.

Over the years as a reporter covering this area and then publishing The Bulletin, I had not heard of any complaints about the counting by Bailey’s office, even though there was a lot of information floating around that the punch card machines miss votes.

I was having coffee in the courthouse the morning after the election when I ran into Bailey, and we had a chat about the close vote.

Are they going to have a recount, I asked?

“We can have one,” she replied, “but it’s not going to change the outcome.”

She seemed really confident about it. Bailey knew the machines were working properly.

As it turned out, there was a recount, and, as that turned out, nothing changed. The machines did their jobs, and there were no hanging chads or missed votes.

As it turned out, Bonnen went on to win the run-offs, the November general elections, and began his long career as a Texas State Representative.

It was a career that almost didn’t happen.

Bonnen is now one of the most powerful members of the legislature. He is Speaker Pro Tempore, chairman of the Sunset Advisory Commission and the House Special Purpose Districts Committee. He is the vice-chair of the Joint Committee of Oversight of Higher Education Governance, Excellence & Transparency. He also sits on the Natural Resources Committee.

But in 1996, all this hung on only 10 votes.

Although Aplin lost a spot in the run-off by a hair, he has fared well in the private sector. He and partner Don Wasek continued to grow their business, the Buc-ees convenience store chain, way beyond Brazoria County.

Early voting is under way. Exercise your right, and help your candidates. You never know when they will need that one vote, or two ... or 10.