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July 16th, 2020:

Some brief runoff thoughts

You know the drill here…

– The Election Night Results page at the SOS shows 955,735 votes total in the Democratic Senate runoff. That number is likely to increase a bit over the next few days, as we’ll see shortly. It means about 300K votes were cast on Tuesday, a bit more than thirty percent of the overall total. This turnout is the highest of any Democratic primary runoff since 1990, back when Dems were the dominant party.

– That turnout was fueled in part by the Senate runoff, and in part by a burning anger at the botched pandemic response and zealous attempts by the Republicans to curtail mail voting. Some national folks commented on this, and how it maybe lends credence to the whole “Texas is in play” narrative, and not just at the Presidential level. We’ll keep checking on the polls going forward to see how far that carries us.

– As there were no statewide Republican runoffs, a direct turnout comparison is tricky. The early voting total for Republicans was 421K, not too shabby all things considered. So maybe they got to 600K or a bit higher.

– Let’s talk mail ballots for a minute. Texas Elects has a terrific overview, but let’s focus on this:

Absentee ballots are counted by a subset of election officials known as the Early Voting Ballot Board (EVBB). Well, in many counties, there are two EVBBs for primary and runoff elections. County political party chairs are the presiding judges, and there are at least two other members. A separate Signature Verification Committee with as many as 12 members may also be created, and larger committees are possible. If you’re interested in the minutiae of all this, the Secretary of State’s 2020 EVBB handbook (pdf) has it in spades.

Counties with a population of 100,000 were able to convene their Early Voting Ballot Boards as early as July 4 (likely July 6 because of the holiday) to begin the process of qualifying and scanning mail ballots. Counties with populations under 100,000 were able to convene their EVBBs as early as last Friday.

An absentee ballot may only be accepted if:

  • The carrier envelope was “properly executed”
  • The voter’s signatures on the ballot application and carrier envelope were not signed by someone else, unless it was a lawful witness
  • The ballot application states a legal ground for voting by mail (In other words, one of the pre-printed boxes is checked or otherwise marked and the voter hasn’t hand-written some other reason, like coronavirus)
  • The voter is registered to vote
  • The ballot was sent to the applicable address; and
  • If required, a statement of residence was included and properly completed.
  • It also has to be received by the county election official by no later than 7 p.m. on Election Day, with exceptions for certain overseas civilians and military voters.

When the EVBB accepts the ballot, the voter’s name is entered on the poll list and the ballot is separated from the envelope. The ballots cannot be counted until polls closed on Friday, the end of the early voting period, in counties with 100K or more residents, and until polls open tomorrow (Tuesday) in all other counties.

This is an easily overwhelmed process. All of this requires human intervention. Absentee ballots arriving by 7 p.m. on Election Day are supposed to be counted and included in election night results. There is reason to believe that a significant number of absentee ballots will arrive very late in the process. For example, as of Friday, Harris Co. had received more than 70K absentee ballots, and another 74K had not yet been returned.

Mail ballots received on Election Day are still treated as “early voting” and will be included within the early vote canvass. In close races, we will be noting who is ahead among absentee ballots, as that may provide an advantage as more votes are counted. Or not.

All of this is to put perspective on why we may not have definitive results on Election night. All of this may be magnified in November, and not just in Texas.

That’s why the final vote totals may creep up a bit, and also something to think about for the fall. You may want to ask your local elections administrator what you can do to help.

More along those same lines.

As dress rehearsals go, Tuesday’s Texas primary runoff elections weren’t bad, but for some voters and poll workers, they revealed problems that need to be fixed before November’s big show.

With much lower turnout than primary or general elections, the first in-person election day during the coronavirus pandemic saw voters reporting heavily sanitized polling places, an ample supply of gloves, finger cots or pencils to mark up their ballots, and socially distanced lines. With a tiny ballot in many places, some were in and out of polling places in minutes.

But some Texans who sought to vote by mail — and submitted their applications on time — indicated they never received their ballots. Some opted instead to vote in person. Others went uncounted. It’s unknown how many were affected.

Other voters sent in their mail-in ballots only to have them returned unopened. Some of those reached county elections offices after a second attempt, while others still appeared lost on election night. It’s also unknown how many were affected.

In some counties, previously advertised polling places were shuttered at the last minute for lack of workers, some fearing the pandemic or reluctant to risk exposure to voters who were not required to wear masks. Others walked off the job Tuesday morning after discovering some of their fellow poll workers wouldn’t be donning masks.

And throughout the night, the Texas secretary of state’s portal for reporting election night returns was either broken or incorrect, first displaying garbled numbers in various races on the ballot and later showing discrepancies with county reports.

“I would say a number of the problems we saw in this election are red flags that, left unaddressed, could result in massive problems in November,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas, in a statement.

At least the SOS website got fixed in relatively short order. The rest of it, yeah. No one should have to do this to cast a ballot.

– Looks like there will be a fight over the CD23 Republican result. Good luck sorting that one out, fellas.

– The SD14 special election runoff needs to be scheduled. I expect it to be in the end of August or so. My condolences to everyone in that district who will have to see two perfectly good Democrats rip each other up for the next six weeks or so.

– Beyond that, I don’t have any deep insights at this time. We’ve got a good slate of candidates, and as of Wednesday we’ll start seeing June finance reports for everyone. Eyes on the prize in November, y’all.

Is it time to step back?

It’s not a question of whether we want to do this, it’s whether we need to.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston leaders are calling for another two-week shutdown as dozens of Army personnel are set to arrive Monday to help fight a virus that continues to set record hospitalizations and deaths in the Texas Medical Center.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said it’s time for the city of Houston to “step back,” as regional cases rose to 63,864 on Sunday — up 1,596 from the day before. There have been 646 deaths in the Houston area. Positive results are coming back for about 16 percent of Texas test-takers.

“Let’s look at the numbers, look at the data, see where things are,” Turner said over the weekend. “And then gradually, move forward again.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo advocated an immediate stay-home order.

“We need to stick with it this time until the hospitalization curve comes down, not just flattens,” she tweeted Sunday. “Many communities that persevered in that way are reopening for the long haul. Let’s learn from that & not make the same mistake twice.”

[…]

While Hidalgo issued a stay-at-home order in March, Abbott has since taken over decisions on whether to open or close businesses and has refused to allow local officials to make decisions on the matter. Hidalgo’s office has unsuccessfully petitioned the governor for power to issue more restrictions as COVID-19 hospitalizations spiked.

But on Friday afternoon, Abbott, too, said that he could consider expanding which nonessential businesses would shut down should the pandemic continue to worsen.

“If we do not slow the spread of COVID-19 … the next step would have to be a lockdown,” the governor told KLBK-TV in Lubbock.

Let’s be clear, nobody wants to do this. It will be devastating to the businesses that have been able to reopen (whether they should have been allowed to or not), and people will lose jobs as a result at a time when extended unemployment benefits and other fiscal stimulus to help people tide themselves over are being held hostage by the Republicans. The problem is that we are at the point that we thought we’d been able to avoid when we shut down the first time, with the death rate spiking and the hospitals overloaded. There may be no other way to try to slow this thing down, short of building a time machine and going two months in the past to force Greg Abbott to allow local face mask orders and a more deliberate reopening strategy. But here we are, and unless there’s a sudden flattening or downward trend in the numbers real soon, I don’t know what other choice there is. Say it with me now: This didn’t have to happen. It’s Greg Abbott’s fault that it did happen.

Harris County will hire an elections administrator

Just like that.

Harris County became the latest in Texas to adopt an independent administrator model to run elections when the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to create the new department.

Court members voted 3-2 along party lines to create an election administrator’s office, which will assume the voter registration duties of the tax assessor-collector and the election management role of the county clerk.

Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett and former Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, who are both Democrats, opposed the move. Bennett in a letter to court members said her office successfully was registering voters, and she expressed doubt an independent administrator would be an improvement.

“Checks and balances will be lost with elections and voter registration managed by one office only,” Bennett wrote. “In counties with election administrators, the lack of accountability between voter registrars and election clerks has caused the type of problem that erodes public trust.”

Trautman, who was elected in 2018 but resigned in May because of health issues, said such a move should come only after a robust community engagement process next year.

The court plans to hire an elections administrator as soon as next month, though the office would not begin official operations until Nov. 18. County Clerk Chris Hollins, who supports the adoption of the elections administrator model, will remain in charge of the Nov. 3 general election.

[…]

In its vote Tuesday, the court ordered a study of the budget, facilities, equipment, and personnel needed for the elections administrator office, and to seek input from the public. The court will need to vote to approve that final report, which is due within 30 days, before hiring an administrator.

This had been discussed before by Commissioners Court, in May shortly after Trautman’s resignation. I went through the previous history of this idea – it came up in 2010 and 2012 as well, with then-Judge Ed Emmett being its proponent. Commissioner Ellis was the driving force this time, and I’ll quote from the email he sent out Tuesday night that explains his reasoning:

Preserving our democratic process must be a priority for Harris County. I’m proud that Harris County Commissioners Court has approved moving our electoral process away from a system that is based on the racist disenfranchisement of communities of color and embraced a contemporary system that reflects our county’s values and diversity.

By creating the Harris County Elections Administrator office, the county is appropriately elevating the importance of elections and demonstrating the vital need to have those elections expertly overseen. Splitting our county’s election duties between two offices – the County Clerk and the Tax Assessor-Collector – as we have previously done, eliminates the ability to streamline the electoral process and does not allow for our elections to be a year-round priority.

“Given how critical voter registration and the administrations of our elections are to our democracy, we need an independent, non-partisan office that can focus entirely on these duties and guarantee our residents equal access to the ballot box,” said Commissioner Ellis.

“Generations of people have fought for the right to vote and our community entrusts us to carry out elections that uphold these values. In the midst of this national reckoning on the legacy of racist systems, we have to examine them all.”

Assigning the tax assessor’s office to also serve as the voter registrar began in 1902 when the Texas Legislature amended the constitution to require anyone who wanted to vote to pay a poll tax. After Texas’ poll tax ended in 1966, the tax assessor remained in charge of voter rolls.

“Today there are Harris County voters who must submit their registration to the same office they previously had to pay a poll tax. The current system we have is a relic of Jim Crow and is as much of an insult to voters as having to walk into a polling center named for Robert E Lee,” Ellis said.

Although Commissioners Court approves the creation of the position, the elections administrator is appointed by the county’s bi-partisan Election Commission, which is comprised of the county judge as chair; the county clerk as vice-chair; the county tax assessor-collector as secretary; and the county chair of each political party.

The Elections Administrator office is strongly supported by national voting rights experts, community-based organizations, and has been successfully adopted by local governments throughout the nation. With today’s vote, Harris County is joining Bexar, Dallas, and Tarrant Counties in establishing county elections administrator positions.

As noted in the Chron story, not everyone liked this – here the post Ann Harris Bennett made on Facebook asking fellow Democrats to oppose this. I’d say I’m ambivalent about it. I definitely see the perspective of other Dems who argue that we worked hard to elect people like Bennett and Trautman in part on their promises to do elections better, and it feels wrong to take that away from them. On the other hand, most other big counties in Texas, like Bexar and Dallas, have elections administrators, and they’re doing fine. I can’t say I’m excited about this, but I understand Commissioner Ellis’ reasons, I trust what he and Commissioner Garcia and Judge Hidalgo are doing, and I see no reason to be up in arms about this. I’m willing to give this a try, especially since it won’t happen until after this year’s election.

I’m working to set up an interview with Commissioner Ellis about this, so if there’s a question you’d like to ask him about this, let me know. The Texas Signal has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of July 13

The Texas Progressive Alliance is fanning itself with one hand and sipping from a frosty beverage with the other as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Schools get an in person opening reprieve

It started with this.

Texas will give school districts more flexibility to keep their school buildings closed to in-person instruction this fall as coronavirus cases continue to rise, Gov. Greg Abbott told a Houston television station Tuesday.

Public health guidance released last week indicated that school districts had to stay virtual for up to three weeks after their start dates, so they could get their safety protocols ironed out before bringing more students to campus. If they stayed closed longer than that, they would lose state funding.

Abbott on Tuesday said that time would be extended. His comment comes on the heels of a tumultuous week, after state education officials released guidance last Tuesday requiring districts to offer in-person instruction for five days a week to all parents who want it.

“I think Mike Morath, the commissioner of education, is expected to announce a longer period of time for online learning at the beginning of the school year, up to the flexibility at the local level,” Abbott said to KTRK. “This is going to have to be a local-level decision, but there will be great latitude and flexibility provided at the local level.”

The news, which Abbott said would be finalized in the next few days, will likely come as a relief to superintendents and educators asking the state for more flexibility on when and how they reopen school buildings. Some local health officials, including in El Paso and Laredo, had already demanded that schools in their areas start the year with virtual learning until cases go down.

And some larger, urban school districts, including San Antonio Independent School District, are planning to push their start dates later and keep all students online for three weeks, in order to avoid reopening school buildings as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surge.

See here for the background. Bowing to reality, we got this yesterday.

Local public health officials will be able to keep Texas schools closed for in-person instruction this fall without risking state education funding, a Texas Education Agency spokesperson confirmed to The Texas Tribune Wednesday.

Last week, the state’s education agency released an order requiring schools to open their buildings to in-person instruction five days a week for all students who want it. The order gives districts a transition period of just three weeks at the start of the year to hold classes virtually and get their safety plans in place before allowing students back on campuses. After the three-week transition, districts that stay entirely virtual would risk losing funding.

But TEA officials confirmed Wednesday they would continue to fund school districts if local health officials order them to stay closed, as long as they offer remote instruction for all students.

[…]

A TEA spokesperson told the Tribune that school superintendents and school boards cannot make the decision to stay entirely virtual for longer than three weeks without a mandate from public health officials.

Some school districts, including San Antonio Independent School District, are moving their start dates to later in August and then starting their school years entirely virtually for three weeks.

And later in the day, HISD followed suit.

Houston ISD plans to delay the start of its school year until Sept. 8, and remain in online-only classes for at least the first six weeks of school, keeping students and teachers home during that time, district officials said Wednesday.

Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, speaking to a group of parent-teacher organization leaders, said decisions about returning to in-person instruction “will be based on what the health threat level is” in the area. While district leaders hope to reopen facilities on Oct. 19, that decision could depend on orders issued by local health authorities or Gov. Greg Abbott.

“Right now, it is just not possible for us to do (reopen campuses), and I’m sorry that’s the situation,” Lathan said. “We moved too fast in the city and state as it relates to reopening.”

For now, the district’s 200,000-plus students will receive a mix of live instruction delivered via video conferencing and online coursework they can complete on their own time. Daily attendance will be tracked, with students considered present if they participate in live instruction, use the district’s online learning platform or submit completed assignments.

The district’s school board still must vote on delaying the start of the school year. HISD’s current 2020-21 calendar calls for resuming classes on Aug. 24. No school board meetings are scheduled for this month.

Six weeks is longer than three weeks, but as the story notes the forthcoming updated guidelines from the TEA are expected to allow for that. I can’t find it now, but there was a graphic some folks were sharing on Twitter that showed how we had closed all the schools when the COVID-19 case rate was way lower than it is now. I know we need to get the kids back into school for a whole range of reasons, and I certainly want my own kids to go back, but it doesn’t make any sense to do that until it’s safe. At this point, we’re doing what we had already done in March, kicking the can down the road and hoping things will be better in the future. That was briefly true at the time, but then, well, you know. Still better than sending kids into schools that aren’t ready to have them there in a safe fashion. We’ll see where it goes from here.