Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

June 9th, 2020:

That’s a lot of mail ballots

The new County Clerk isn’t messing around.

Harris County this week sent mail ballot applications for the July primary runoff to every voter 65 and older, interim County Clerk Christopher Hollins announced.

The move comes as Harris County is preparing for a significant expansion of mail voting during the novel coronavirus pandemic as some residents are wary of voting at potentially crowded polling sites.

Hollins, who started Monday after being appointed to replace former clerk Diane Trautman, said he wants to provide a safe avenue for voting amid the pandemic. Hollins sent applications to 376,840 voters, about 16 percent of the voter roll.

“Our goal is to keep our voters 65 and up safe amid the current health crisis by giving them the opportunity to vote from home,” Hollins said in a statement Thursday.

This is the first time the clerk’s office has sent mail ballot applications to voters. unsolicited. Previously, voters had to request one on their own. The mailer cost $210,000, Hollins spokeswoman Rosio Torres-Segura said.

You can see a copy of the Clerk’s statement here. There’s a prissy quote in the story from Paul Bettencourt, who Does Not Approve of spending money to make it easier for people to vote. That’s really what this is. That $200K is small potatoes compared to the $12 million the Clerk’s office was allocated for November election prep. At the very least, we’ll get some idea of who has an undeliverable address, who wound up voting that likely wouldn’t have otherwise, and just how hard it is to pull something like this off. That’s a useful thing to know for November, when the pressure will be much higher.

To me, if there’s any objection in sending a mail ballot to every over-65 person in the county, it’s that you can’t do something similar for everyone else. This highlights the age discrimination aspect of Texas’ absentee ballot law. The point of voting by mail is that it’s a convenience. It makes voting easier. Not everyone will want or need to use it – like I said, I plan to vote in person in July and (barring anything unforeseen at this point) in November as well. I like voting in person, and I believe I can do it in a fairly low-risk manner, based on time and location. There are legitimate concerns about voting by mail as an entire replacement for in person voting, and doing a mass change like this without a ton of prep work is extremely risky. But there were around 100K mail ballots returned in both the 2016 and 2018 elections, so going from that to sending out 376K ballots isn’t much of a stretch. This is about making it easier for people to vote. The objections should be seen in that light.

Commissioners Court to address police reform

On the agenda for today.

Ten police and criminal justice reform items appear on Tuesday’s agenda; seven by Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, two by County Judge Lina Hidalgo and one by Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia. They would:

  •  Examine whether to create an independent county civilian oversight board, with the ability to subpoena documents and witnesses, to investigate claims against police, including use-of-force complaints
  •  Order the creation of a universal use-of-force policy for all county law enforcement agencies, to include de-escalation techniques and alternatives to violence
  •  Determine how to engage the community in budget evaluations for all the county’s criminal justice departments;
  •  Create a public website with monthly use-of-force reports, including video footage, submitted by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and constables’ offices
  •  Determine the feasibility of creating a new emergency responder program to handle some responsibilities that currently fall to police, such as mental health and substance abuse crises
  •  Study whether to create a new county agency to run “violence interruption programs” to end cycles of violence in communities
  •  Determine how to expand alternative, non-punitive intervention techniques to address issues including poverty, homelessness and substance abuse
  •  Study the effect on poor arrestees of cash bail, criminal fines, fees and penalties
  •  Order a bi-annual report on current racial disparities in the justice system with recommendations on how to eliminate them
  •  Make improvements to the indigent defense system

Ellis, who has cited criminal justice laws as among his proudest achievements during his 26-year career in the Texas Senate, said in an email to constituents on Thursday that reforming law enforcement must extend beyond addressing police brutality.

“We must re-imagine what justice means, and open our eyes to the ways that the justice system intersects with racism, classism, and other societal inequities, and chart a new path predicated on community well-being,” Ellis wrote.

As noted, Commissioners Court has less power to affect policing in Harris County than Mayor Turner and City Council do in Houston because Sheriff Gonzalez and the Constables are all elected officials themselves. They do have the power of the purse, however, and can threaten to make budget cuts as needed to effect reforms. More transparency and a CAHOOTS-like program as proposed by CM Letitia Plummer both seem like strong ideas that can have a quick impact, and an oversight board with subpoena power is also needed. Now get some community input and start implementing these plans.

Coronavirus and Professional Bull Riding

Here’s how Professional Bull Riding managed to keep doing what it does during the pandemic.

The PBR went on hiatus March 15 at the conclusion of an Unleash The Beast event in Duluth, Ga., that was closed to the public. A COVID-19 protocol was then developed and implemented during three weekends of made-for-TV events at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Okla., that began April 25. CEO Sean Gleason said his team worked tirelessly on that plan, which has since been shared with over a dozen other sports leagues.

“The PBR team rose to the occasion, took a lot of common sense, thought through a lot of issues and have been able to get back to work and keep our riders earning some money,” Gleason said.

“The whole industry is dependent on PBR events, so to not have them would have been devastating to a lot of people.”

COVID-19 testing, RVs and the concept of “functional groups” have been the keys to the PBR’s stringent protocol.

RVs essentially became quarantine pods; each person stayed in one on the grounds of the Lazy E. Everyone was also tested for coronavirus and had to isolate in an RV for 24 hours while awaiting results. The PBR reported all tests were negative during the three events in Oklahoma.

Separation was created by functional groups. Each person was assigned to a group of less than 10 people, usually six or seven, and interaction was permitted only for members of the same group. Each group wore different colored wristbands and ate at separate locations.

Individuals were screened before entering the arena. Every person on site had to practice social distancing and wear masks.

Gleason said it was a challenge to sync up all the moving parts and to meet constantly evolving guidelines at all levels of government. The riders helped make it easier, though. All bought in to make it work.

“Every guy was more than willing to go through those protocols, just to have the opportunity to do what we love to do,” said Cody Teel, PBR rider and College Station resident.

It’s a good story, and kudos to PBR for figuring out something that worked. I don’t know how well this model can translate to other sports leagues, but I’m sure there’s something in their experience for others to learn from.