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April 30th, 2020:

Democracy Toolbox (PPP): Biden 47, Trump 46

From the inbox:

A new Texas poll shows former Vice President Joe Biden up by one percentage point over President Donald Trump and also provides insights into Texans’ concerns about voting during the COVID-19 outbreak. The poll was commissioned by Democracy Toolbox and conducted by Public Policy Polling April 27-28, yielding 1032 landline and cell phone responses, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent.

When asked to choose between Democrat Joe Biden or Republican Donald Trump in the presidential contest, 47 percent responded that they would vote for Joe Biden, 46 percent for Donald Trump, and seven percent were unsure. Forty-nine percent disapprove of Trump’s job performance, and 46 percent approve. Governor Gregg Abbott fared much better, with 58 percent approving of his job performance and 30 percent disapproving.

The poll also asked a number of questions to discover how Texans are feeling about voting in the era of COVID-19, particularly voting in person, and whether the pandemic could impact their decision to participate in upcoming elections. “Thoughtful leaders are asking for universal, no-excuse voting by mail and a majority of Texans agree with them. We will see how that plays out,” said Jeff Dalton of Democracy Toolbox. “We wanted to see how voters will react if the pandemic is still a concern and the state does not lift restrictions on voting by mail.”

Seventy-eight percent of respondents indicated they were very or somewhat concerned about being around other people because of COVID-19. Sixty-three percent responded that they were very or somewhat concerned about voting in person because of the outbreak.

Those who identify as Democrats and Independents appear to be more concerned about voting in person than Republicans. Eighty-seven percent of Democrats said they were very or somewhat concerned. Sixty-four percent of Independents indicated they were very or somewhat concerned. In contrast, 14 percent of Republicans said they were very concerned, 28 percent somewhat concerned, and 58 percent said they were not too concerned or not concerned at all.

Despite worries about being in proximity with others, most voters across the political spectrum seem highly motivated to cast a ballot, even if they are only eligible to vote in person, and even if COVID-19 is still a concern. Seventy-five percent of respondents indicated that they would still participate in July runoff elections, even if they are only eligible to vote in person. Eighty-eight percent said they still plan to vote in November 2020, even if they are only eligible to vote in person.

The survey also asked people if they think Texas, for health and safety reasons, should lift restrictions on who can vote by mail. Fifty-three percent said they would like restrictions removed. Thirty-eight percent indicated they do not want restrictions removed.

You can see the questions and the crosstabs here. The sample reported voting for Trump over Hillary Clinton by a 51-42 margin, which is right on the 2016 result. A couple of questions of interest: First, to the question “If the coronavirus outbreak is still a threat in November during the presidential election, and the only way you are eligible to vote is in person at a polling location, would you still plan to vote in person, or would you consider not voting this year?”, that 88% that said they would still vote in person broke down as 92% of Trump supporters (with 4% saying they wouldn’t vote and 4% saying they didn’t know), and 86% of Clinton suppoters (with 7% each saying “would not vote” and “don’t know”). Second, to the question “If you were eligible to vote by mail, what are the chances you will vote by mail because of coronavirus: will you definitely vote by mail, will you consider voting by mail, or do you think you will you still vote in person?”, 19% of Trump voters would definitely vote by mail, 17% would consider voting by mail, and 60% would still vote in person, while 69% of Clinton voters would definitely vote by mail, 18% would consider it, and 10% would still vote in person. You now have all the information you need to understand the current fight over expanded voting by mail.

Three other items of interest from the crosstabs. One is the complete lack of a gender gap in these numbers. Women and men were very similar in their approval of Trump and Abbott, their intent to vote for Biden or Trump, their support of vote by mail, their level of concern about coronavirus, and so on. Two, independents strongly disapproved of Trump (35 approve, 55 disapprove) and supported Biden (50-34), and supported expanded vote by mail (61-31). Finally, voters under the age of 65 strongly disapprove of Trump (27/59 for 18 to 29-year-olds, 43/51 for 30 to 44-year-olds, and 44/54 for 45 to 64-year-olds), and will vote for Biden (52-29, 46-45, and 53-45, respectively), while those 65 and up were exactly the reverse (62-35 approval, 59-36 voting).

Standard disclaimers: one poll, it’s early, subsamples can be weird, etc etc etc. I’ve added a Polling Texas 2020 sidebar widget to track these results. Enjoy!

Age discrimination lawsuit filed over vote by mail

This is something new.

Citing the threats of the coronavirus, six Texas voters filed suit in federal court Wednesday challenging restrictions that limit age eligibility for voting-by-mail to those 65 and older.

In a lawsuit filed in San Antonio, the voters — all between the ages of 18 and 28 — claim the Texas election code violates the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting restrictions that discriminate based on age. While all Texas voters 65 and older can request a mail-in ballot, those younger than 65 must meet a narrow set of requirements to qualify.

The voters are backed by the National Redistricting Foundation, an affiliate of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. The lawsuit cites the urgency brought on by the coronavirus outbreak in asking a federal judge to remedy what they argue are discriminatory and unconstitutional age restrictions.

“Having opted to make mail-in voting an option for voters in Texas, Defendants may not constitutionally choose to restrict access to the franchise to voters for no other reason than the fact that they are 18 years old, 25 years old, or 64-and-a-half years old. Period,” the lawsuit argues. “While the Absentee Ballot Age Restriction would be unconstitutional under any event, in the current circumstances its application is unconscionable.”

[…]

As part of that fight, the Texas Democratic Party also filed a federal lawsuit arguing that holding a traditional election under the conditions brought on by the coronavirus — with current rules for mail-in voting in place — would violate several constitutional protections for voters, including the 26th Amendment.

But the newest lawsuit zeroes in wholly on a violation of the 26th Amendment in asking a federal judge to declare age restrictions for voting-by-mail unconstitutional to allow voters under the age of 65 to use that voting option.

“To be sure, some number of Texans will need to vote in person in these coming elections, even if mail voting is widely available,” the lawsuit reads. “But foreclosing this option to millions of members of the electorate simply on account of their age is facially unconstitutional.”

See here for more on the TDP’s federal lawsuit; there is now an order from the state lawsuit that would end this 65-and-over-only restriction. Shortly after I saw the news item for this lawsuit, the TDP announced that it had filed a motion for a preliminary injunction in the federal suit. We’re going to get some kind of action on this front in short order.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lawsuit like this before, and didn’t think much about it. Mark Joseph Stern breaks this down:

Although it is often viewed as a simple promise that Americans can vote upon turning 18, the 26th Amendment is actually a broad ban on age-based voting restrictions. It declares that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged” for citizens 18 and over “on account of age.” In other words, the amendment does not just protect 18-year-olds’ ability to vote. It also forbids any law that abridges adult citizens’ right to vote because of their age. The amendment established a policy against laws that burden an adult’s suffrage due to their youth, reflecting a national consensus that younger adults deserve fully equal access to the ballot. As Yael Bromberg detailed in her groundbreaking study

Initially, courts adopted this view of the amendment. For instance, when striking down a policy that disenfranchised students living on campus, the New Jersey Supreme Court wrote in 1972 that the amendment “clearly evidences the purpose not only of extending the voting right to young voters but also of encouraging their participation by the elimination of all unnecessary burdens and barriers.” And the U.S. Supreme Court’s only 26th Amendment decision, Symm v. United States, struck down a county policy that singled out college students for special scrutiny when they registered to vote, forcing them to reveal personal information that ostensibly helped the registrar determine whether they qualified. Other courts invalidated similar laws that made it more difficult for college students to vote, even when they did not fully disenfranchise them. of the 26th Amendment, Congress said as much when considering the amendment in 1971: The Senate expressed its desire to remove “special burdens” on “young voters,” while the House of Representatives sought to abolish any voting law that had “the purpose or effect of discriminating on account of age.”

It is impossible to reconcile these decisions with contemporary laws that forbid adults of a certain age from voting by mail. In fact, it is remarkable that such laws remain on the books nearly a half-century after the ratification of the 26th Amendment. Today, most litigation over the amendment involves overt efforts to suppress college students’ suffrage—as when Florida attempted to outlaw early-voting sites on university campuses. (A federal judge blocked the rule as an unconstitutional age-based voting discrimination.) But the Constitution provides no lesser protection to voters age 18–64 who wish to vote absentee. As voting rights expert Joshua A. Douglas told me on Wednesday: “This is a strong claim. The 26th Amendment not only forbids states from denying the right to vote on the basis of age over 18. It also prohibits them from ‘abridging’ the right to vote based on age. Yet the Texas law does exactly that: impose discriminatory voting rules on the basis of age.”

Well, voting rights advocates have had a rough go of it lately in federal courts, but this approach may just work. I very much look forward to seeing how this plays out. The Chron has more.

Reopening roundup redux

More news about that thing that Greg Abbott is making us do.

Health experts give Abbott’s plan to reopen Texas mixed reviews, warn state should revive stay-at-home order if surge emerges:

Diana Cervantes, director of the epidemiology program at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, said Monday’s announcement came too soon — and did not give businesses enough time to prepare precautionary measures before opening Friday.

“That’s a concern,” she said.

Health leaders in some Texas cities said it was too soon to relax social distancing precautions that have helped keep the coronavirus outbreak manageable in Texas. Abbott moved toward reopening about 10 days sooner than health leaders in Houston had hoped for, according to the Houston Chronicle. The governor said his order supersedes any local restrictions.

“This is too soon for us,” Mark Escott, Austin’s interim health authority, said Tuesday during a city council meeting. “As we’re still preparing contact tracing, ramping up testing, working to protect vulnerable populations, now is not the time to flip on the light switch.”

At the same meeting, Lauren Ancel Meyers, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas at Austin, shared a model she created showing that Austin could surge past its hospital capacity as soon as this summer if social distancing regulations are eased indefinitely.

In Dallas County, which marked its deadliest day on Tuesday, Health and Human Services Director Philip Huang said some area hospitals have seen increases in COVID-19 populations.

“These are the trends we’re worried about even before the governor’s order,” he said, standing in front of a screen that read “Stay Home, Stay Safe.” As businesses reopen, he said, it is all the more important that Dallas continue to socially distance, wear masks and “make smart choices.”

Health experts said Abbott must be careful in determining whether it’s safe to continue to expand business openings in coming weeks. The success of the economic reopening depends on increasing the state’s capacity for testing and contact tracing.

Moving forward to the second phase of reopening — when certain businesses could serve customers at 50% capacity — depends on the outcome of the first stage. Abbott said it is “only logical” that the restrictions he’s easing this week will cause an increase in the number of positive coronavirus cases. That alone will not be “decisive,” he said.

The governor and his advisers will look closely at hospitalization rates and death rates to decide whether it is safe to move on to phase two. But Abbott’s plan, outlined in a 65-page booklet, does not offer specific figures or thresholds.

[Luis Ostrosky-Zeichner, a professor of infectious diseases and epidemiology at UT Health] said “any sort of uptick in cases would be worrisome to me.”

A distinct lack of metrics was a concern to me as well, but what do I know?

Texas sending restaurant and retail employees back to work without child care:

Restaurant servers, retail cashiers and movie theater concession workers in Texas could be called back to work as soon as Friday, in the first phase of the state’s emergence from a coronavirus shelter-at-home order.

But parents working in those industries who have young children will be turned away from licensed child care centers, which remain open only for children of essential workers such as grocery clerks and nurses. And public and private schools across the state are closed for all students through the end of the school year.

As Republican state leaders move to re-energize the economy, already a controversial decision, they are forcing some parents into a near-impossible choice: find a place to leave your child or risk losing your source of income. Under the state’s current rules, Texans who choose not to go to work when their business reopens will no longer be eligible for unemployment payments.

“Public health needs indicate that child care operations may remain open only to serve children whose parent is considered an ‘essential’ worker under the Governor’s executive order,” said Cisco Gamez, a spokesperson for the Texas Workforce Commission, in a statement. “Just because a business is now open does not necessarily mean that it is considered ‘essential.’”

But the Texas Workforce Commission has since said in a follow-up statement that it is considering case-by-case waivers that would allow some people to continue receiving unemployment benefits even if they choose not to return to a reopened business.

“Under longstanding TWC policy, if an employer offered an individual a job and they refused the job offer without good cause the employee would not be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits,” the statement said. “Recognizing this, extraordinary situation, TWC is reevaluating good cause situations that take into consideration the governor’s direction towards reopening the economy.”

It’s almost as if the problems that had been identified for working people in good times were exacerbated in a time of crisis. No one could have seen that coming.

Montgomery County commissioners call Abbott’s plan to reopen Texas economy ‘vague’:

Gov. Greg Abbott responded to Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough late Tuesday and acknowledged his order to reopen Texas businesses on Friday needed clarification after Keough called the plan vague and said it didn’t mandate businesses such as hair and nail salons, bars and gyms remain closed.

“I actually went back and looked at the order and I can understand why he’s saying that it needs clarification. And so we will provide that clarification,” Abbott said in a Fox 26 interview regarding Keough’s comments.

Keough said he appreciated the governor’s attention in the matter but said he is standing his ground that his interpretation of Abbott’s order only says those businesses “shall” be avoided, which, he said, does not mean the businesses can’t open. He added if and when Abbott clarifies the order in writing, he will abide by its guidelines.

During the commissioners court regular meeting Tuesday morning, Keough said the county has done all it can to follow guidelines from Abbott. However, he said the opening of some businesses over others “doesn’t make sense.” After reading Abbott’s order, Keough said it does not close or keep closed any businesses.

“He doesn’t close those,” Keough said of businesses such as hair salons, barbershops, gyms and nail salons. “It says you should avoid these businesses. It is uncommonly vague what he has said and there is a measure of confusion. I am not trying to push against the governor, I am just trying to free the people who have been chosen to be the losers.

“The object here is not to go rogue on the state of Texas or the governor. The object is we have until Friday to get clarification on this. As far as we are concerned, he has not declared these (businesses) closed.”

Still waiting on that clarification. People seem to be especially agitated over the haircut issue:

As Abbott made the rounds of TV news interviews Tuesday, it was clear that his hair edict had struck a strong and disappointed chord with some Texans.

“Now governor, by far the most calls we have been getting are from barbers and hairdressers who are trying to understand why they are not in phase one of your plan,” the interviewer on KFDX in Wichita Falls asked Abbott on Tuesday afternoon. “People feel that personal grooming is essential and if proper precautions are taken, why isn’t the hair industry in phase one?”

“Well, first I agree with their sentiment 110%. And I know that fellow Texans do also,” Abbott replied. “But once again, the decisions that we made yesterday were decisions based upon recommendations by doctors, and so some doctors concluded that because of the close proximity between a barber and a customer and a hair salon and a customer, even though they’re wearing face masks, we’re still looking for best strategies.

“But it’s so important for your audience to know this,” Abbott said. “After my announcement yesterday, we began working on the issue immediately, and we are continuing to work on it and we will be looking forward to try to make an announcement really soon as we come up with safe strategies for barbers and hair salons to be able to reopen.”

I mean, my hair is approaching levels of shagginess not seen since my grad student days, but that hasn’t broken my spirit yet. My hair will still be there to be cut in a couple of weeks, you know?


Go click and read the thread, and also read this Eater story if you haven’t already.

Office space: How to keep Texas workers safe as they return:

The office refrigerator? Better take it away. The office coffee pot? Ditto. Even shared copiers and printers have become biological hazards, thanks to the spread of the coronavirus.

Workplace culture as we knew it in January is disappearing as companies prepare for the return of employees as early as Friday in Texas.

Many companies have focused on separating employee workstations so workers remain 6 feet apart to comply with government social-distancing recommendations. They’re also buying masks and gloves to prevent the virus from spreading. But what about not-so-obvious dilemmas, such as whether to station someone on each floor to help maintain distancing in office elevators. And what to do about the germ-covered door knobs on bathroom doors?

“It’s the simple things, like unfortunately and sadly, maybe eliminate the handshake,” Jason Habinsky, an employment lawyer with Haynes and Boone, told employers this week during a telephone seminar. Instead, maybe workers could point and a nod at each other, a manner that before the conoravirus pandemic might have been awkward but now makes sense.

I don’t drink coffee and I almost never generate paper, but I do bring my lunch more often than not. Guess I’ll have to plan to start bringing a cooler or something. This world we’re going to re-enter is going to be so very different from the one we left.

Texas blog roundup for the week of April 27

The Texas Progressive Alliance has treated this week’s roundup with Clorox and UV radiation.

(more…)

Harris County preps for more mail ballots

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to spend up to $12 million for an expected uptick in requests for mail-in ballots in the July primary runoff and November general election from voters concerned about contracting the novel coronavirus at polling places.

The three Democrats on the five-member court voted to give County Clerk Diane Trautman enough to send a mail-in ballot to every registered voter in the county over the objections of the two Republican members who said the clerk failed to justify the expense.

Trautman said her office is planning for any outcome in a lawsuit filed by Democrats and voting rights advocates seeking to force the Texas secretary of state to allow any resident to request a mail ballot.

“No matter what the courts and the state decide for the July and November elections, we must be prepared for an increase in mail ballots, which we are already seeing,” Trautman said.

[…]

Trautman said her office “can’t turn on a dime” and must begin preparing to accommodate more mail ballots, which are more expensive to process than votes cast at electronic voting machines because they would require more equipment and staff, as well as the cost of postage.

She outlined the costs of an expanded mail voting program: about $3 million for 700,000 ballots; $8 million for 1.2 million ballots; and $12 million for all 2.4 million ballots. The Democratic majority — County Judge Lina Hidalgo and commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — opted for the full sum, noting the county clerk may end up spending only a portion of the funds.

“We want to make sure, with the possibility of a record turnout, we’re giving… the support they need,” Ellis said. “I want us to do what we can to improve the percentage of people who vote in this county, because it’s embarrassing.”

Hidalgo urged Trautman to keep the court and the county health department apprised of her plans to ensure upcoming balloting is safe for voters.

Whatever happens in the lawsuits, we should expect an increase in people voting by mail this fall. I mean, plenty of regular voters are over the age of 65, and all of them are eligible to receive a mail ballot. There were over 100K mail ballots returned in the 2016 election. That number could easily double or triple without any objection from Ken Paxton. Just preparing for that is going to take time and money, and that’e before any consideration of the possibility that a whole lot more people will be allowed to receive a mail ballot. It would be negligent in the extreme to not address this ahead of time.

One more thing:

Alan Vera, chairman of the Harris County Republican Party’s ballot security committee, warned that expanding mail voting would be a “logistical nightmare” that would render the county clerk unable to count all votes on election night.

Vera said Harris County should instead adopt an in-person voting system similar to South Korea, which held a national election in mid-April. Election workers in that nation sanitized polling stations and took the temperature of each voter. Residents with confirmed coronavirus cases still could vote by mail.

Trautman said her office already has ordered sanitation supplies for poll workers, including masks, gloves and face shields.

Okay first, as we know, all early mail and in person ballots are counted and the results published on Election Day when the polls close. You also have to get your ballot in by Election Day. I see no reason why the Clerk could not produce an up-to-date set of results on Election Day evening. I agree that the final count would be later, but most results would be clear by then. Second, because Diane Trautman is not an idiot and we are all aware of the courthouse situation, they are planning for extra safety and cleanliness measures as well. Finally, you do know that Republicans vote with mail ballots, too, right? Making it harder to vote in Harris County is going to hurt y’all as well. I can’t believe I have to tell the Harris County Republican Party that, but here we are.