Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

November 1st, 2016:

How turnout happens

If there are a lot of new voters turning out in Harris County this year, the Texas Organizing Project will be the reason why for a lot of them.

The untapped power of the Latino electorate is one of the enduring motifs of modern Texas politics. If only Hispanic voters could be persuaded to show up at the polls—so goes the narrative—the “sleeping giant” could turn Texas blue. Looking at the numbers, it’s easy to see why. About five million Texas Latinos—more than one quarter of the entire electorate—are eligible to vote. But their registration and turnout lag behind Texas as a whole. In 2012, according to Census data, only 39 percent of eligible Latino voters cast a ballot, compared with 54 percent of Texans overall.

TOP is trying to change those numbers. The organization, which focuses on issues that are important to local communities of color, has been working since 2009 to increase voter turnout among Latinos and blacks. As evidence of the group’s success, the director of electoral strategy, Crystal Zermeno, points to a 5 percent increase in the Latino share of the vote in Harris County between 2008 and 2012. Given Trump’s incendiary comments about Hispanics and immigrants, many expect that Latinos will be more motivated than ever to show up at their polling places this year. In the two months leading up to Election Day, TOP’s temporary staff—the group has 37 full-time employees—will call or visit 400,000 people in Harris County.

But Latino voter participation has remained modest because of factors far more complex than personal apathy. Latino voters are a young group, and young people generally turn out in lower numbers. Plus, many are first-, second-, or third-generation Americans who don’t have a family tradition of voting.

“For a lot of folks, partisanship or political behavior is something that’s passed down through their parents and grandparents,” says Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, an adjunct professor of Mexican American and Latino Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “You don’t have that same custom in the Latino community.”

Nor are they accustomed to hearing from candidates, since campaigns usually invest resources in voters who have turned out regularly in the past. A recent poll found that 60 percent of the country’s registered Latino voters had not been contacted by any campaign, political party, or get-out-the-vote organization this cycle. In places like Houston, this is exacerbated by the fact that, as Lydia Camarillo, the vice president of the San Antonio–based Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP), puts it, “nobody cares about Texas.” Because it’s not a battleground state, Texas receives limited attention from national donors.

Texas also has some of the country’s most stringent laws regulating voter registration, requiring that voters register at least thirty days before the election. Still, SVREP predicts that more than two million Texas Latinos will vote this month—a 5 percent increase from 2012. To make sure that happens, groups like TOP are doing what research shows is most effective for engaging new voters: knocking on doors.

As we know, there are a lot of newly-registered voters, both locally and nationally. People who have an established habit of voting are going to vote. People who don’t have such a habit, which includes the newly registered, may need a push to get to the polls. It’s hard work and it doesn’t scale, but the kind of in-person discussions that TOP is having is the best way to do that. There’s a reason why some people are freaked out by the prospect of greater participation in this election. You want to make a difference, this is how you do it.

The dry debate

The Chron hosted a mini-debate about the vote to change the Heights dry ordinance on its Monday op-ed pages. Bill Baldwin represented the status quo, for keeping the Heights (the original Heights) dry.

With the stark reality of land use as it is today, our deed restrictions are patchy, and most properties on high-traffic streets here are not restricted at all. In a city with no zoning, other typical neighborhoods have deed restrictions where the Heights does not. Undoubtedly, the dry area has successfully kept large operators such as Walmart, Target, Sprouts, Kroger and a Whole Foods concept on the way all outside of our historic borders. Eliminate that barrier and you make way for future big-box retailers, gas stations and convenience stores, along with their parking demands and high traffic.

You don’t build a fence to keep out the good neighbors; it’s for the bad ones. In this scenario, we still consider H-E-B a good neighbor, but I am concerned about operators without the reputation of H-E-B.

We don’t know exactly what will happen if we change the dry area, but we do know this: All around the city there is concern about the changing character of neighborhoods. Like the rest of the city, the Heights is wrestling with these issues of development and identity. How do we responsibly progress, increase property values and keep a sense of identity intrinsically tied to the community? In the Heights, the dry area has in many non-obvious ways functioned toward those ends. Keeping the Heights dry means also keeping it local and residential.

Steve Reilley spoke for the pro-change faction, to amend the historic dry ordinance to allow beer and wine sales for off-premise consumption, i.e., retail sales.

We need to alter this regulation in order to welcome locally oriented businesses into the community. Rest assured, this is a grassroots effort, and is not driven by businesses wanting to sell alcohol. More than 1,700 Heights voters signed the petition requesting the measure be placed on the Nov. 8 ballot. Our effort has been criticized because of H-E-B’s involvement. H-E-B didn’t sign the petition – we did. And the Texas Constitution gives us the right to have this election because we want to preserve our neighborhood, increase consumer options, raise property values and increase walkability, as Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Cohen, the chairwoman of the Houston City Council Quality of Life Committee, recently noted that the repeal of this regulation will do.

Some have suggested that permitting the sale of beer and wine for off-premise consumption will lead to the opening of convenience stores along Heights Boulevard, negatively affecting the Heights’ character. High property costs in the area would inhibit such use. In addition, much of Heights Boulevard and most of the affected area falls within the Houston Heights East and Houston Heights South Historic Districts, which prohibits existing covered structures from being torn down and replaced with nonconforming structures, such as convenience stores. Moreover, various properties along Heights Boulevard and other parts of The Heights are subject to deed restrictions that preclude commercial use.

Some opponents to the proposition have unfortunately engaged in “scare tactics” by suggesting unrealistic harm will fall upon our neighborhood if Heights-area stores are permitted to sell beer and wine for off-premise consumption. This election has nothing to do with liquor stores, bars, strip clubs or chain restaurants. It will have no impact on restaurants that operate as private clubs to serve alcoholic beverages to patrons. Residents will not be able to sell beer, wine or liquor out of their homes. This activity is already prohibited by numerous state laws, county regulations and city ordinances.

I did interviews with both gentlemen about this – here’s Baldwin and here’s Reilley. The latter was done in June after the petitions were submitted and before there was any organized opposition, so that interview was more informational, since there were still a lot of questions about what this effort was and what it meant. Baldwin doesn’t really say anything in his piece that he didn’t say in the interview he did with me, while Reilley’s article necessarily includes some rebuttals of pro-dry talking points. If you are in the affected area and somehow haven’t yet decided which way to go on this referendum, the two opinion pieces and interviews should tell you all you need to know.

I have no idea which side will win. I won’t be surprised by either result. There’s been a lot of recent discussion of it on the Heights Kids mailing list, with a fairly even split between the factions; the few recent threads I’ve seen on Nestdoor were all started by pro-dry people. I’ve seen more pro-dry yard signs than I have seen pro-amend signs, but I’d say half of those signs are in yards that are not in the affected area. (A good bit of the discussion I’ve seen in both places has been about who actually gets to vote on this issue.) I’m pretty sure there will continue to be a lot of chatter about this after the election, whichever way it goes.

More on the Texas telemedicine lawsuit

Texas Monthly has a nice overview.

Imagine you’re sick, or you think you might be sick, and you want to talk to a doctor. Instead of waiting a week or two to see your primary care physician, you just open an app on your phone or computer and within minutes you’re video-chatting with a doctor or nurse. Maybe you even have a medical device, like a blood pressure monitor, that connects your computer and transmits images and data to your doctor in real time while you’re talking.

That’s not science fiction. It’s called telemedicine, an $18 billion worldwide industry and one of the fastest-growing sectors in health care. In many ways, telemedicine represents the future of health care, promising to do for medicine what Uber and Lyft have done for transportation. Across the country, the use of telemedicine is expanding as consumers realize how much more convenient it is to talk to a doctor when and where they choose. It’s also a lot cheaper. The average telemedicine visit costs between $40 and $50, compared to the average in-person doctor’s visit, which is about $100 more—not counting the cost of the time and effort it takes to travel to and from a brick-and-mortar doctor’s office.

But here in Texas, where we have an infamous shortage of doctors and nurses, telemedicine has hit a snag. New rules promulgated by the Texas Medical Board last year prompted Dallas-based Teladoc, the largest telemedicine firm in the country, to file a federal antitrust lawsuit against the board. Specifically, the medical board’s new rules (PDF), approved in April 2015 but blocked by a federal judge’s preliminary injunction just days before they were set to take effect, stipulate how physicians in Texas can establish a “doctor-patient relationship” with new patients before engaging in telemedicine. A patient must either visit the doctor in person or meet “face-to-face” over video conference. But the video conference must be at an approved medical site like a hospital, clinic, or a fire station, and there must be a “patient site presenter” on hand, like a nurse or a physician’s assistant. In other words, you can’t just turn on your computer at home, login to a telemedicine app and be connected with a doctor. Put another way, in Texas you have to go to a medical clinic to be seen by a doctor, even if the doctor isn’t there.

This presents a substantial obstacle for Texans who are interested in using telemedicine. Many people, especially younger folks, simply won’t go to a doctor’s office, either because they don’t have what doctors and policymakers call “a medical home,” or because they don’t have health insurance.

So in Texas, which has the highest uninsured rate in the nation, on-demand telemedicine could be a game-changer. It holds the promise that, instead of forgoing medical care, more people might actually seek out a doctor when they’re sick.

All of this is why the antitrust lawsuit Teledoc filed has sparked so much debate—and confusion. Teladoc, which says Texas was already among the most restrictive states in the country for telemedicine, claims the new rules will hamstring telemedicine firms and limit patients’ access to healthcare. The medical board claims just the opposite. It views its new regulations as an expansion of telemedicine, not a restriction of it. Meanwhile, as the case wends its way through federal courts, a consortium of health care and tech groups is calling on the Texas Legislature to step in and settle the matter when lawmakers convene in Austin early next year.

[…]

The Legislature seems at least somewhat aware that it needs to step in. Last session, both the Senate and House issued interim charges to study telemedicine and give recommendations about how to improve it. To date, most of these hearings have steered clear of the lawsuit and spent considerable time hearing testimony about how great telemedicine is in Texas. To be fair, Texas was one of the first states to invest in telemedicine technology in the 1990s, and since then has tried to encourage its use in rural areas where medical specialists are scarce. One pilot program, supported by state funds and run by the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock, will equip ambulances in rural West Texas with technology that allows first responders to communicate with physicians at regional trauma centers on a secure internet connection and transmit patient data in real-time while en route to a trauma center or an emergency room.

Those are real advances, and will likely save some lives in rural communities. But the big gains from telemedicine will come from hundreds of thousands of consumers using the services for routine care—and doing so on their own initiative from their homes and offices. To make that possible in Texas, lawmakers might need to act. During the 2015 session, Representative Jodie Laubenberg filed several telemedicine bills, including one that would have prevented the medical board from issuing the rule requiring a face-to-face consultation if the physician had never seen the patient. The bill was introduced and referred to the House Public Health Committee, but after the board published its new rules in April and Teladoc sued, Laubenberg, pulled it. “If something’s going to court, we stand back,” she said—a line that’s since been repeated in interim hearings on telemedicine.

But Laubenberg, along with Teladoc and many other Texas-based healthcare firms, thinks the legislature should step in once the court case is settled. They think this is about something much larger than a single antitrust suit. “Over the last five to ten years, telemedicine changed from a promise to a reality,” says Gorevic. “Now we’re starting to see the benefits. Today it’s becoming part of the fabric of the healthcare delivery system.” Just how much a part of the fabric it becomes in Texas depends not only on the Fifth Circuit Court, but how well lawmakers can work with regulators once the dust settles. Right now, the tide seems to be turning in telemedicine’s favor. In September, Robinson, the medical board’s executive director since 2001, announced she’s leaving the board to direct the telemedicine program at University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

For lawmakers like Laubenberg, the issue is about something yet greater than healthcare: the degree to which regulatory boards should make up rules for their industries. “I’ve never been a big fan of agency rulemaking. They tend to go rogue,” she said. “I think the medical board thought they could get ahead of it, but the issue’s too big, and they couldn’t do it.”

See here for the background, and be sure to read the whole thing. It seems likely that Teladoc will prevail in court, though one never knows for sure, and it won’t surprise me if the Lege decides to step in and attempt to settle the matter themselves. There is of course an irony in Jodie Laubenberg being so involved with this, since the omnibus anti-abortion HB2 from 2013 prohibits dispensing abortion-inducing drugs (mifepristone-misoprostol regimen) by anyone other than a physician and requires that the physician dispensing the drug first examine the pregnant woman, which is interpreted to mean “in person”, thus making HB2 itself a telemedicine ban. That provision wasn’t part of the lawsuit that led to much (but not all!) of HB2 being struck down, though it may well come later. Point being, Laubenberg considers regulating doctors to be her job, not the Medical Board’s. We’ll see who gets to make the next move, the Fifth Circuit or the Lege. Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond, opining in the Chron, has more.

Early voting, Day Eight: We do have a pretty good idea of who has been voting so far

Why such a mushy article about the state of early voting so far?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Because Texas voters can use a single click to back an entire slate, the down-ballot candidates running countywide have ever-slimming chances of influencing their destinies. As polarization and straight-ticket voting grow, the outlook is even more challenging for judicial candidates, who do not like touting their candidacies in a partisan way in the first place.

“It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad,” said District Court Judge Ted Halbach, one of a handful of Republican judges who eked out wins in 2008 and again four years later. “I’ve been the beneficiary and now I face the challenges. But you only can worry about what you can control – and you can’t control very much.”

The 2016 presidential battle, which may go down as the ugliest and most unusual of modern times, could have a profound local impact. Both candidates provoke high negative opinions, which could depress voter turnout or inspire it.

Early vote totals suggest the latter. More than 566,000 ballots were cast in the first week, a record. Lane Lewis, the Democratic Party chairman for Harris County, said the early turnout bolsters his hope for another “wave” election.

“Do I believe Democrats are doing well? Absolutely,” Lewis said. “Five days of voting is not enough to predict an outcome. I wouldn’t say anyone is beating the victory drum.”

Donald Trump’s faithful seem likely to show up en masse, but U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was the big winner in the spring primary, taking 45 percent of the Harris County vote. What will the Cruz supporters do? There is a reasonable possibility that suburban Republican women will cross the party divide and give Hillary Clinton a local win to match what opinion polls are showing in many states. The question is, will they step back to help the down-ticket Republicans?

“This year, nobody knows,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a 2008 Republican survivor. “Will the turnout be high or low? Will they turn out for Trump or against Trump? Will Hillary get the same kind of enthusiastic turnout Obama did? I don’t see it. But it’s true that we don’t really know.”

The countywide down-ballot races include sheriff, district attorney, county judge, education board, constables and scores of judicial seats. The people seeking them this time cannot decide whether to be confident or scared, Emmett said.

“I was at a candidate meet-and-greet the other day, a bipartisan thing, and in talking to those candidates, to a person they were frantic over who was going to show up and vote,” he said. “Nobody knows.”

“We treat Harris County as a very evenly divided battleground ‘state,'” said Harris County Republican Chairman Paul Simpson. “When I was running (for chairman), that was my constant message. It was a Democratic county, then became Republican, then switched to be very evenly divided. Every cycle is a pitched battle.”

[…]

Political consultant Keir Murray, who works with Democratic candidates, said he is optimistic about the party’s future, though like everyone else he is not so sure about this year.

“The problem is, if you are a Republican office holder, you don’t have a lot of margin for error,” Murray said. “If you get marginally lower turnout from your base voters, you lose. Or, if you see some real uptick in Hispanic voting – and they have not been voting near their rates of registration – that would make a difference. There is evidence that this could happen because Trump has said very negative things about them.”

All due respect, but we do know who is voting, because the County Clerk puts out a roster of everyone who has voted after each day, and we have a pretty good idea of how they are voting. In fact, the Chron wrote about this on Friday, so I have no idea why they switched into this nobody-knows-anything mode. It’s true that the question of who among those that have not yet voted will turn out remains murkier, but the evidence we have so far is that there are still a lot more high-propensity Democrats left to vote, more than the number of high-propensity Republicans. I understand having a story that talks to the people who are on the ballot and who are being affected by what is going on now, but if you’re going to talk about what is happening, the consultant types are in a much better position to give you real information.

Anyway. The Trib has a nice tracker of the changes in early voting turnout for the biggest counties over the past three Presidential races. It’s up everywhere, but the uptick in Travis County in particular is amazing. El Paso is also doing very well, and so far the conventional wisdom is that this is good for Pete Gallego in our one swing Congressional district, CD23. That would have been at least a competitive race without the Trump factor, but maybe this time it will be blue all the way down, and not just in the Congressional race.

I went to bed before the Monday EV report came out, though I saw on Facebook that the number of voters was in the 73,000 range. That’s in line with the daily output from last week, though down a bit from the end of the week. We’ll see if things will slow down or level off, or if the usual pattern will hold and the last two days this week will be heavier. Here’s the Day 7 EV report, which brings you up to date through Sunday. The weekend was even better for Dems than the first five days were, so it’s all about what happens this week. The tracker spreadsheet is here, and I’ll update that when I get the Monday report.

UPDATE: And here are the Day 8 EV totals. It’s down a bit, but still higher than Day One was. The spreadsheet has been updated.