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April 21st, 2020:

How do you conduct an election in a pandemic?

We’re about to find out, one way or another.

There will be an election in Texas in mid-July, apparently with polling sites, election workers and voting machines in place so people can cast their ballots in person. How many voters might be willing to risk a trip to the polls during a pandemic, though, remains unknown.

As Texas Republicans work to block the expansion of mail-in balloting during the new coronavirus crisis, local election administrators across the state are deciphering how to safely host voters for the July 14 primary runoff elections — and eventually the November general election — under circumstances unseen by even the most veteran among them.

Looking to expand curbside voting, some election officials are considering re-tooling parking garages or shuttered banks with drive-thru lanes. Rethinking contact during a process that requires close proximity, others are toying with the idea of buying hundreds of thousands of pencils that voters would take home after using the eraser end to mark their ballots on touch screen voting machines.

Many are scrambling to add sanitizing and protective gear to the long list of equipment needed to pull off a safe election. Plexiglass or plastic shields, like those now common at grocery store registers, could make an appearance at polling place check-in stations.

One huge unknown hangs over all the planning — whether there will be a surge of mail-in voting that creates a whole new sphere of logistical challenges.

“It’s almost like you’re preparing for two elections rather than one,” said Lisa Wise, the elections administrator in El Paso County. “That’s just part of what we’re in right now.”

[…]

Operating polling places during a pandemic creates another set of safety challenges as voters must check in, sign poll books and stand in lines.

Election administrators recently shared among themselves a poll that offered insight into how people feel about voting in person during a pandemic — 66% of Americans said they would feel uncomfortable going to a polling place now.

In Aransas County, elections administrator Michele Carew is considering whether she should establish a pop-up voting center in a tent in a parking lot. Because the county is small, her office warehouse typically serves as the only early voting site in the county. But with social distancing rules in place, she’d only be able to fit five voting machines instead of the 10 that normally run. That would be particularly unworkable for the high turnout expected for the November election, she said.

Other election administrations are exchanging messages about whether reducing polling locations would allow them to get a better handle on the situation; others are responding with suggestions about doubling the number of locations so they can space out voters and machines.

But those conversations often dovetail into another crucial consideration — there’s no way to know if they’ll have enough poll workers to staff their voting sites.

“Sixty percent of my election officials are over 65 so obviously they need to be replaced or a vast majority of them need to be replaced,” said Jacque Callanen, the Bexar County elections administrator. She’s considering turning to a pool of county workers who she can train up for the election, but the coronavirus will also get in the way of that.

Typically, she’d be able to cram 80 people into her training room, but she’ll be down to 20 at a time with social distancing requirements.

At this point, though, Callanen isn’t even certain how many poll workers she’ll need. A majority of the county’s polling sites would be propped up in public schools, but she’s not sure if they’ll be able to open up those sites to the public during an outbreak.

This is all a big fricking mess, with the huge uncertainties of where we will be with the virus, whether or not expanded vote-by-mail will be allowed, what sites will be available and practical to use, who will be willing to staff them, and so on and so forth. It’s on thing to say “this is the way it is and these are the parameters you have to work with” and ask election officials to plan for that, and another entirely to say “we have no idea what the conditions will be so plan for every possible scenario”, which is where we are right now. We could at least try to settle the vote by mail question, but as is so often the case our wishy-washy Governor has yet to articulate a position on the matter, leaving it up to the courts and his nihilistic Attorney General to sort it out. The good news, if you want to look at it that way, is that the July primary runoffs, plus the SD14 special election, are going to be pretty low turnout overall. As such, we can probably cobble together something that will more or less work. November is an entirely different story. Remember those pictures from Wisconsin? As the Fort Bend elections administrator says, if we don’t figure this out we’re gonna be Wisconsin times ten. The clock is ticking.

Meet your recovery czars

For Harris County:

Rep. Armado Walle

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Monday named state Rep. Armando Walle the county’s COVID-19 recovery czar as local leaders determine how to eventually ease restrictions on public life meant to slow the spread of the disease.

Walle, a Democrat, has represented the Aldine-area House District 140 since 2009. He serves on the appropriations, higher education and redistricting committees and was a state budget conferee in 2019. Hidalgo said Walle understands the needs of the more than 2 million residents of unincorporated Harris County.

“We need someone who will be laser-focused on helping families right now and combating the long-term economic effects and the long-term human impacts of this crisis,” Hidalgo said at a news conference.

[…]

Walle echoed Hidalgo’s pledge to base decisions to remove restrictions on data rather than arbitrary deadlines. He vowed to work with business, nonprofit, philanthropic and faith-based leaders as well as elected officials across Harris County.

“We need to work together on an inclusive recovery that responsibly ensures the economic health and well-being of the people of Harris County,” Walle said. “We need to save lives and also save livelihoods.”

And for the city of Houston:

Going for the tried and true, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner Monday named former Shell president Marvin Odum to the position of Houston COVID-19 Recovery leader.

Odum was also the first Hurricane Harvey recovery leader appointed by Turner in 2017. Saying Odum had performed to “rave reviews” the last time he led the city’s recovery efforts, Turner said Odum will be working with a number of groups including business leaders , non-profit groups, members of the mayor’s exectuive team, as well as just-announced Harris County COVID-19 Recovery Czar Armando Walle.

Critical issues, the mayor said, include how to restart the economy, specifically how to send people back to work and the need for robust testing. Odum is also charged with coming up with a plan if the area starts to see an increase in the number of positive cases and developing some way to implement contact tracing so the city knows where the virus is traveling.

Another area of importance will be making sure at-risk, vulnerable populations are not left behind, the mayor said, as well as: “How do we prepare for the next pandemic?”

In turn, Odum pledged to “act as quickly as possible.” He said collaboration with other governmental units was key because “We don’t want to duplicate work or waste any time.”

Both task forces will work with each other. I would expect there to be more of these, perhaps from other cities within the county, and perhaps they will work with other task forces from other counties. Lord knows, there will be plenty to do, and right now no one knows what a lot of this looks like. Both men are good choices – Odum has the experience with Harvey, and of course is very well-connected in the business world, which will need to buy into whatever the plan is. Walle is a terrific member of the Legislature, so he has that going for him, and he’ll be a voice for working people and their needs. They, and whoever they work with, will have a lot of responsibility, and may very well run into obstacles at both the state and federal levels, especially if their ideas of when and how “reopening” should occur are in conflict. I wish them a lot of luck, and I think they will need it.

UPDATE: Here’s a later version of the Chron story that includes the Odum appointment.

Fifth Circuit flips off abortion rights again

I’m so sick of this shit.

Right there with them

A federal appeals court has again banned most abortions in Texas amid the coronavirus pandemic, though the ruling will only be in effect for two days.

The ruling on Monday by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals prohibits medication and surgical abortions for nearly all women except those nearing the state’s 22-week legal gestational limit to obtain one. The court had ruled last week that medication abortions could proceed.

But the court’s ruling will expire Tuesday night.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued a new order loosening restrictions on nonessential surgical procedures — presumably including abortions — starting Wednesday, though neither he nor Attorney General Ken Paxton have clarified how abortions will be impacted.

Abbott’s original order restricted procedures to only those that require “immediate” response to protect a life or serious adverse medical outcome. The new order replaces “immediate” with “timely.” Physicians are left to determine whether the criteria is met.

Paxton has no plans to clarify how the new order applies to abortions, according to a spokeswoman. He has previously threatened criminal action against doctors who perform them during the ban.

In its ruling, the Fifth Circuit said medication abortions use masks and other critical protective gear needed for frontline doctors to respond to the coronavirus crisis. Abortion providers are required to meet with patients before and after providing them pills to terminate a pregnancy, the court wrote, and should be wearing protective gear during those visits.

“The question, then, is not whether medication abortions consume (personal protective equipment) in normal times, but whether they consume PPE during a public health emergency involving a spreading contagion that places severe strains on medical resources,” it wrote.

It was one week ago that the court allowed medical abortions to continue, so if you’re feeling some whiplash, you’re not alone. It boggles my mind that restrictions could be re-imposed by the court at a time when they are being eased up by the state, but that’s Fifth Circuit logic for you. What happens tomorrow when this order expires? Who the hell knows? It’s been bullshit from beginning to end. If we ever want to get off this demonic roller coaster, it’s going to require a new Governor and a new Attorney General, at the very least. The Trib has more.