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March 18th, 2020:

We already have the power to do more voting by mail

KUT points to a path forward that could get a lot more people voting by mail in Texas.

Texas has one of the most restrictive vote-by-mail laws in the country, but it is open to some of the state’s most vulnerable populations.

Grace Chimene, the president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, says she hopes the state and counties encourage eligible voters to mail in their ballots.

In Texas, people over 65 can apply for mail-in ballots, so the state’s older population can obtain a ballot ahead of elections.

People with underlying health issues can also apply. Whether those people qualify, however, largely depends on the county election officials who administer elections in the state.

Chimene said it’s possible many people with some health issues could qualify as disabled, which is one of the categories of people allowed to vote by mail here, but those qualifications could be clearer.

“I would like the secretary of state’s office to really explain who qualifies, who can vote absentee,” Chimene said. “I think it’s not super clear.”

Travis County Clerk Dana Debouvoir said that a disability can be a “fungible” thing that changes often throughout a person’s life. She says this could be a category that would allow people who should stay away from large groups because of COVID-19 concerns to vote at home.

“Here at the elections office we are not doctors,” Debouvoir said. “So if you say on one of those forms that you have a disability, we are going to believe you. I am not going to reject an application for ballot by mail on the basis that I think or don’t think someone has a disability. That’s not going to work right now.”

Chimene said she thinks state officials should make it clear if “sick” or disabled could apply to many of these voters who have underlying health issues, like a chronic disease or immunodeficiency.

“What qualifies as sick should be something that we are encouraging the secretary of state to expand on,” Chimene said.

As the story notes, not a lot of people 65 and older, who are eligible to vote by mail no questions asked, take advantage of it now. Travis County Clerk Dana Debouvoir puts the figure at 10-15% there, and I’d bet it’s similar in Harris County. We could already have a lot more people voting by mail right now if they wanted to. The HCDP has a program where it sends a vote by mail application to all of its known-to-be-Democratic voters and then calls them to remind them to send it in (I’ve participated in that), and you can see the effect it has had in recent elections. Thanks to the high level of turnout in this year’s primary we have a lot more Dems identified, and we could get a lot more mail ballot applications sent out. It’s up to the voters themselves to take it from there.

I should note, since I pointed this out before, that having more people vote by mail will also mitigate the effect of not having a straight ticket voting option, in that it will not add to the lines at voting locations. That’s another pretty big consideration after this year’s primary, too. What I’m saying here is: If you’re a Dem and you’re 65 or will be by this November, please consider getting a mail ballot. Pester your eligible friends about it, too. Yes, I know, I love going to the polling places, and I’d greatly miss it if I didn’t do that. And Lord knows, we should very much be on the other end of the coronavirus curve by then – if not, we’re in much deeper trouble than we’re in now – but still. This is a thing you can do that would help on more than one level. Give it some thought.

Even more so, if you’re a person with health issues, especially if you’re in any way immuno-compromised, you can request a mail ballot as well. Your County Clerk ought to oblige. Again, we’ll very likely be mostly out of the pandemic woods by November, but again, why not take advantage anyway? It’ll be good for you, and good for the wait times at polling places. What’s not to like?

Now having said all that, there are potential drawbacks to expanding vote by mail, and we need to take them seriously. One, as Josh Levin, the election protection fellow at the Texas Civil Rights Project notes, vote by mail applications can be rejected due to signature mismatches, and elections officials aren’t good at notifying applicants when this happens. That was noted in the earlier story about the possibility of an all-mail primary runoff election. You’ll need to be persistent and pester your county clerk if you don’t get your mail ballot in a timely fashion. Two, if you do go this route, please don’t then show up at a polling place and vote again in person. Every cycle some people get confused about this, and it is a thing you can be prosecuted for. Three, if the GOP suspects that Democratic voters are trying to game the system somehow by getting mail ballots to people who are not 65 but are claiming a health exception, they will surely take some kind of legal action to stop it. It’s hard to say how big a deal that could be, but we really don’t need further attacks on the legitimacy of our elections.

Finally, Campos raises a good point:

On the mail ballots for everyone thing, we need to be careful on this. I am all for going to a vote by mail system in the future. Last week, I watched a CNN piece on how the state of Washington handles their vote by mail system. It is pretty elaborate with a lot of special equipment and a physical layout to handle the volume. I don’t think the folks who conduct our elections in Texas have the infrastructure in place to handle 16 million mail ballots. I just don’t think we jump into this system under emergency circumstances. Convince me otherwise. We saw what happened a couple of weeks ago today.

Yeah, I agree with that. I think we can encourage people who are already eligible to vote by mail to consider doing so if they haven’t already – there’s a clear benefit to that and the system should have no trouble handling it. Anything bigger than that will require planning and coordination, and we’re not there yet. We don’t want to risk having a worse outcome because we weren’t able to deliver on our promises.

On balance, there’s no reason why folks who are clearly eligible to get a mail ballot not to do so, and many reasons why they should. The first order of business is to make sure they know that they can, and then follow up from there. We can do that this year. It’s already in our power. Daily Kos and TPM have more.

SD14 special election date set

A bit of a surprise, to me at least.

Sen. Kirk Watson

Gov. Greg Abbott has postponed the special election for the Austin area’s Texas Senate District 14 due to the spreading coronavirus pandemic.

The election to replace retiring state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat leaving office at the end of April, has been moved to July 14, Abbott announced Monday evening. It ordinarily would have been held May 2.

Two candidates have already announced they’re running for the historically Democratic seat: State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who announced last week that she would resign from her position to run for the Senate. Several others have been eyeing a potential run at the seat.

Abbott’s office said postponing the election “is another step the state is taking to protect health and mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” noting that it was consulting with the secretary of state’s office “on additional strategies to ensure public health in relation to any upcoming election.” It’s unclear whether additional action will be taken to delay municipal elections across the state, which are also slated for May 2.

See here for the announcement of Watson’s resignation, and here and here for the declarations by Rodriguez and Eckhardt. I had been assuming that Abbott would not set a date until after Watson’s resignation was official. Perhaps I was overly influenced by the Sylvia Garcia “intent to resign” saga from 2018, I don’t know. Be that as it may, if there had been a previous announcement of a May 2 special election date, I didn’t see it, and I looked at Greg Abbott’s news releases going back to the date of Watson’s announcement. It may just be that this Trib story is not as clear as it could be, as this tweet demonstrates:

Whatever the case, the proclamation is here. Let’s hope that circumstances do not force it to be pushed back again.

Emergency orders extended

In Houston.

City council on Tuesday extended Houston’s emergency health declaration, reflecting a warning by Mayor Sylvester Turner that the public health crisis fueled by the spread of COVID-19 will not go away anytime soon.

“This is a crisis. I hope there’s no one around this table that’s questioning that,” Turner told his colleagues during a spirited special meeting Tuesday. “And it’s a crisis that’s going to be with us for several weeks if not several months. And I hope no one is questioning that.”

The measure gives the mayor power to suspend rules and regulations and to “undergo additional health measures that prevent or control the spread of disease,” such as quarantine or setting up emergency shelters. Similar orders have been issued after hurricanes.

Turner declared the emergency last week, after the region’s first confirmed COVID-19 case of community spread, in which the virus was contracted locally rather than travel. The order was used to cancel the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release, which notes that among other things, all city-produced, sponsored and permitted events are canceled through the end of April, and the city expects to begin COVID-19 testing this week, with an announcement to come.

Harris County took similar action.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday extended Harris County’s public health disaster declaration in response to the coronavirus, but only for eight days.

The agenda for Tuesday’s emergency session called for a 30-day extension. However, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle asked for a shorter extension so other elected officials and the public can give input.

The other four members agreed and unanimously extended the declaration, which allows the county to more quickly purchase necessary supplies and services, though March 25. County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she hoped Cagle was acting in good faith and not trying to build discord around the declaration.

“There is lives on the line in this thing,” Hidalgo said. “We’ve got to stick together, and this is not the time to be whipping up political opposition.”

[…]

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia asked Hidalgo to do all her office can to halt evictions. Garcia said many residents are losing income because schools and businesses have closed, and should be given a break.

Cagle said Commissioners Court should not take any action seen as swaying eviction proceedings in favor of defendants or ordering judges how to perform their duties. Garcia said he simply is seeking a delay in evictions so vulnerable residents have a chance to catch up on rent.

“I’m not asking for judges for any ruling,” Garcia said. “I’m just asking for the judge to halt the process until we can see some light at the end of this tunnel.”

The county judge does not oversee independently elected constables and justices of the peace who administer evictions. Assistant County Attorney Barbara Armstrong said emergency powers allow the county judge to close public buildings and allocate resources, which Hidalgo could exercise to prevent hearings from taking place. Armstrong said cases would resume when the crisis subsides.

Hidalgo said she has spoken with several of the county’s 16 justices of the peace, who have indicated they intend to temporarily stay eviction proceedings.

Other counties are taking similar action on halting evictions, and also making fewer arrests for low-level crimes, as is Harris. These are among the things that maybe we ought to continue after the crisis subsides. Just a thought.

Art Car Parade has been canceled

Some inevitable sadness from the inbox:

Dear Friends,

As one of the city’s largest and most iconic annual events, the Houston Art Car Parade has celebrated the artist in everyone for each of the past 33 years, showcasing hundreds of mobile masterpieces designed and created by a vast array of trained and untrained artists, student groups, non-profit organizations, and anyone with a spark of creativity and “the drive to create.” It has awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to Art Car artists and artist teams and has become an important and inspiring art program for many schools across the Greater Houston area.

Due to the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 and the restrictions currently in place by the City of Houston and Harris County regarding public events, the Board of Directors of the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art has decided to cancel the 2020 Houston Art Car Parade. This will include all events associated with Houston Art Car Parade Weekend scheduled to take place April 16-19, including the Main Street Drag, the Sneak Peek at Saint Arnold Brewing Company, The Legendary Art Car Ball, The VIPit Experience, and the Houston Art Car Parade Awards Ceremony.

A message from Orange Show Founder & Chairman Marilyn Oshman:

“While canceling this year’s events was a difficult decision, we remain absolutely committed to supporting and highlighting this unique and exciting form of art. To that end, plans are already underway for a city-wide Art Car celebration event to take place this summer, featuring many of the incredible Art Cars that would have participated in this year’s parade.”

The event’s date and location will be announced in the near future, and information will be found at www.thehoustonartcarparade.com.

We wish to thank those those patrons who have purchased tickets to any of the events that will be cancelled. If you are a ticket holder, expect to hear from us shortly regarding your purchase.

In addition, the organization is suspending entry and tours of its two Houston folk art landmarks The Orange Show and The Beer Can House until further notice. Smither Park remains open from dawn to dusk, though we encourage practicing social distance when in public. Up-to-date information about their re-openings will be made available at www.orangeshow.org.

We are grateful for our sponsors, community partners, supporters, and incredible community of artists who have been a part of the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art family over the years, and look forward to bringing back the Houston Art Car Parade Weekend in 2021. If you would like to make a fully tax-deductible donation to the organization and help us to produce this event as well as continue the restoration and maintenance of three of the city’s important folk art environments The Orange Show, The Beer Can House and Smither Park, click here.

I mean, no one should be surprised by this. But we can all be sad. And we can look forward to that the future celebration.