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March 13th, 2020:

What should we do about the runoffs?

With coronavirus concerns now shutting down all kinds of public events and other large gatherings, it’s more than fair to wonder what the risks are of conducting the primary runoffs in the usual fashion. This post on Indivisible Houston suggests a path forward.

Runoff elections are coming soon, and while I understand commercial events being cancelled, I am absolutely opposed to the cancellation of democracy. Unfortunately, if people are stuck inside for the next month or two, we may have either public health issues or fear weighing down voter turnout by keeping people from going to the polls unless they are eligible to vote by mail.

One approach we may be able to take as a state to ensure people can vote is to demand access to vote by mail for all residents. The Governor of Texas can likely make that happen by a state of emergency or special session. Harris County and other counties can also advocate for such a solution or similar solutions; our county clerk, county attorney, and commissioners court are capable of coming up with a game plan, too.

I understand this is not the foremost concern for everyone in the county because we’re all trying to make sure our county is healthy and that people have their basic needs met. But I also think it’s important to protect democracy. The ballot is too important to be denied, even amidst chaos.

If you agree with me, please call the Governor’s office, your state rep, and your county level officials to demand a solution to the issue.
Below is a script and some of their information. You can call, email, tweet, or preferably do two or all three.

“Hello, my name is ________. I am a constituent and I want to encourage you to find solutions for our May runoff election that would allow all voters to vote by mail and otherwise ensure access to the polls in a way that accounts for the public health crisis.

Please tally my opinion.

Thank you.”

-Governor Greg Abbott – (512) 463-2000
https://gov.texas.gov/apps/contact/opinion.aspx
@gregabbott_tx

-Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo
713-274-7000
Twitter: @Lina4HC

-Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis
713-274-1000
@RodneyEllis

-Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia
713-755-6220
@adriangarciahtx

-Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack
713-755-6306

-Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner R. Jack Cagle
713-755-6444

-Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman
713-274-8600
@dtrautman

Find your state rep and senator here and call them.

I should note up front that primary runoffs have much, much lower turnout (see item 4) than regular primaries. There won’t be any lines to vote in the runoffs. You’ll breeze in and out and may not see anyone but the election workers. That said, those election workers will see and interact with plenty of people over the course of the day, and of course we’ll all be using the same voting machines. Neither of those is a great idea in the time of pandemic, and it’s not at all hard to imagine that turnout could be suppressed even more than usual just from people’s natural fear of going to the polling places.

So given all that, switching to an all vote-by-mail primary runoff seems like an excellent way to mitigate the risk. Greg Abbott would have to call a special session to amend the existing law to allow for this, and I would hope that would be a notion that anyone could get behind. I mean, these are primary runoffs, so there’s no question of partisan advantage, just of public health. As a practical matter, this would have to be done by April 11, as that day is the deadline for sending out mail ballots to overseas voters. There’s time, but let’s not dilly-dally.

(And yes, there would be legit health concerns about getting all 181 legislators plus their staff and journalists and whoever else into the Capitol at this time. I don’t know what they can do to mitigate that. At least they can minimize the amount of time they’d have to all be in one room.)

Assuming that could be done, the next question would be how to get the mail ballots out. Normally, people have to request a mail ballot, if they are eligible. Both parties have programs to help people with that, but this is a much bigger scope, and also a more complex one since anyone who voted in March can only vote in the same party’s runoff. I would advocate that this law mandate that anyone who voted in Round One automatically be sent a mail ballot for the runoff, with anyone who didn’t vote in Round One being eligible to request whichever ballot they might want (as they are allowed to do). That would likely serve as an experiment in how much an all-vote-by-mail election would affect turnout, because I’d expect a lot of people who otherwise might have ignored the runoff would fill in their ballot and send it back. That might cause some heartburn in the Lege, especially (but maybe not exclusively) on the Republican side, and would likely be the biggest point of contention other than whether or not to do this at all. Also, counties might reasonably ask for some funding to cover all those mail ballots, as they would be expected to send out far more than they normally would, and someone has to pay for the postage and handling. I would argue the state should at least kick something in for that – there’s plenty of money available – but again, this would surely be a sore point for some.

(It may not be entirely up to us. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden has introduced a bill that would require all states to offer voters a vote-by-mail option, or to allow for the drop-off of hand-marked paper ballots, once 25 percent of states and/or territories declare a state of emergency related to the coronavirus. The bill would kick in $500 million in federal funding to help states make this happen. It likely has no chance of passing, though, and even if it did it’s hard to imagine it happening in time for our May 26 runoff. But at least someone else is thinking about it.)

Anyway. I’m convinced this is a good option – you should feel free to tell me in the comments why I’m wrong about that – and should at least be up for discussion, if not action. And I agree, if you think this is a good idea, now would be the time to make some calls and express that opinion to Abbott and your legislators. Time is short, so get to it now or forever lose the chance.

The Andrea Duhon situation

On Election Night, I wrote about the HCDE Postion 7 At Large primary result, in which Andrea Duhon, who is already serving on the Board in a different position, to which she was appointed following the resignation of Josh Flynn, won the race outright. I had suggested this was a disaster for the Dems, because Duhon would have to withdraw from the race, which would leave the Dems without a candidate in November. Here’s the relevant state law on that:

Sec. 145.035. WITHDRAWN, DECEASED, OR INELIGIBLE CANDIDATE’S NAME OMITTED FROM BALLOT. A candidate’s name shall be omitted from the ballot if the candidate withdraws, dies, or is declared ineligible on or before the 74th day before election day.

Sec. 145.036. FILLING VACANCY IN NOMINATION. (a) Except as provided by Subsection (b), if a candidate’s name is to be omitted from the ballot under Section 145.035, the political party’s state, district, county, or precinct executive committee, as appropriate for the particular office, may nominate a replacement candidate to fill the vacancy in the nomination.

(b) An executive committee may make a replacement nomination following a withdrawal only if:

(1) the candidate:

(A) withdraws because of a catastrophic illness that was diagnosed after the first day after the date of the regular filing deadline for the general primary election and the illness would permanently and continuously incapacitate the candidate and prevent the candidate from performing the duties of the office sought; and

(B) files with the withdrawal request a certificate describing the illness and signed by at least two licensed physicians;

(2) no political party that held primary elections has a nominee for the office sought by the withdrawing candidate as of the time of the withdrawal; or

(3) the candidate has been elected or appointed to fill a vacancy in another elective office or has become the nominee for another office.

So despite some speculation I’ve seen around, the Dems would not be able to pick a substitute candidate if Duhon withdrew. This is basically the Tom DeLay situation from 2006. If Duhon withdraws, that’s it.

However, she doesn’t have to withdraw. It was my assumption that that was the only option, and that isn’t correct. There is another alternative, which I hadn’t considered until Duhon suggested it to me the day after the election: She could run for Position 7 while remaining in Position 4, then resign from Position 4 if she wins. The Board would then appoint her replacement as they had appointed Flynn’s. My assumption had been that she would have to step down to run for the other HCDE position, but if that were true she’d have not been appointed to it in the first place, since she was already a candidate at that time. This makes sense, and I should have thought of it before. I still maintain that the less-messy outcome was for Duhon to finish below fifty percent and then withdraw from the runoff, but that ship has sailed. So, Plan B it is, and we’ll work to find another qualified candidate to appoint if Duhon wins in November.

You periodic reminder that every vote matters

2020 Republican primaries edition.

One vote still separates second and third place in the GOP primary for Texas House District 47, but a revised total released Wednesday pushed Justin Berry ahead of Don Zimmerman for the final spot in the May runoff election.

Zimmerman had held a one-vote margin over Berry in the western Travis County district when unofficial election results were released after the March 3 primary.

All Travis County votes have now been counted, according to updated election results from the county clerk’s office, but Zimmerman can still call for a recount.

Texas election laws allow candidates to petition for a recount if they are trailing an opponent by less than 10% of the total votes received by the opponent.

The updated results showed Berry with 4,105 votes and Zimmerman with 4,104.

Craig Murphy, a spokesman for Berry, said the campaign was not surprised to see a late change, adding that he did not expect the results to change with a recount.

“They’ve done some of the things they would have done during a recount, so it’s less likely to change,” he said, referring to the counting of mail-in, overseas and provisional ballots. “This is one of those rare occasions where every single person in the race for us made a difference.”

The second-place candidate will face attorney Jennifer Fleck in the May 26 runoff.

I noted this in my runoff roundup. Basically, some mail ballots arrive after Tuesday – they just have to be postmarked by then to count – and some provisional ballots get cured, so the final official vote total ticks up a bit. Usually, these things are too small to have an effect on an outcome, but when the margin is one vote, anything can happen. I’ll be a little surprised if Zimmerman doesn’t ask for a recount – which, like the late-counted ballots almost never changes anything, except here we’re talking the very smallest of differences – and he’ll have a few days to decide. The fun never stops. The Trib has more.

Let’s not play ball

Not just yet, anyway.

Major League Baseball has cancelled the remainder of its Spring Training games, also announcing that the start of the 2020 regular season will be delayed by at least two weeks due to the national emergency created by the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision was announced following a call with all 30 Clubs and after consultation with the Major League Baseball Players Association. Opening Day was originally scheduled for Thursday, March 26.

MLB said the action “is being taken in the interests of the safety and well-being of our players, Clubs and our millions of loyal fans.”

The league will continue to evaluate ongoing events leading up to the start of the season. Guidance related to daily operations and workouts will be relayed to Clubs in the coming days.

MLB and its Clubs have been preparing a variety of contingency plans regarding the 2020 regular-season schedule. The league plans to announce the effects on the schedule at an appropriate time, though MLB also said it “will remain flexible as events warrant, with the hope of resuming normal operations as soon as possible.”

“Nothing is more important to us than the health and safety of our players, employees and fans,” the league said in its announcement. “MLB will continue to undertake the precautions and best practices recommended by public health experts. We send our best wishes to all individuals and communities that have been impacted by coronavirus.”

The National Hockey League and Major League Soccer also announced Thursday that they have suspended their seasons. The National Basketball Association suspended its regular season on Wednesday night for at least 30 days, a move which came after Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for coronavirus. Thursday, a second Utah player — Donovan Mitchell Jr. — also tested positive.

Additionally, the NCAA announced that all winter and spring sport seasons have been cancelled, meaning that there will be no men’s or women’s NCAA basketball tournament this year, and no men’s and women’s College World Series.

These are scary times, and we won’t have a lot of familiar comforts to get us through them. But get through them we will, eventually. Stay strong and wash your hands.