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September 10th, 2020:

Where are we with the lawsuit to stop Harris County from sending out vote by mail applications?

Thanks for asking, we had the hearing in district court yesterday.

Voting in person will be safe across Texas in this fall’s general election despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the state’s elections director asserted in a Harris County courtroom Wednesday

Keith Ingram, with the Texas Secretary of State’s office, made the statement while testifying against Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins’ plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in the county.

“Voters who want to vote by mail, and qualify to vote by mail, they should. And voters who want to vote in person, we would encourage them to do so,” Ingram said. “It’ll be safe for them to do so, and the counties will have a good experience for the voters.”

The Attorney General’s Office called Ingram as a witness in an injunction hearing seeking to halt Hollins’s plan while the underlying case makes its way through the courts. Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Hollins on Aug. 31.

State District Judge R.K. Sandill made no immediate ruling on the injunction, though at times appeared skeptical of the state’s arguments.

At the heart of the case is whether Hollins would exceed his authority as county clerk by sending mail ballot applications to each voter, which Harris County never has done. In the four-hour online hearing, lawyers for the state and county described starkly different consequences of carrying out the plan.

Ingram said Harris County’s plan would confuse voters and encourage some to vote fraudulently, undermining the public’s trust in the integrity of elections. He noted that lying on a mail ballot application is a state jail felony and residents could be prosecuted well after this fall’s election.

“When something strange, or unusual happens, voters are very concerned that this is an opportunity for fraud, and when they think the other side is cheating, they tend to stay home, Ingram said. “That’s the concern about a mass mailing like this.”

Hollins said he simply is trying to help as many eligible voters cast ballots as possible, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when many would feel safer voting by mail. The top of each application would feature a checklist explicitly explaining the eligibility rules. Hollins dismissed the state’s argument that voters would be confused as absurd.

“It would be a very bizarre and highly unlikely outcome that somehow, someone would unfold this fully, go to the very bottom, and think ‘I need to fill this out,’ without ever having looked up here,” Hollins said, pointing to a draft mailer in his hand.

See here and here for the background. You already know how I feel about this, and there’s nothing in this story to suggest that the state has improved on its weak arguments. I’m glad to see that Judge Sandill pointed out to the state that they had no objections before when Hollins sent applications to every over-65 voter in the county. There’s an edge of desperation in this lawsuit, and while one could argue it’s not the best use of the county’s money to do this, the law as interpreted by the Supreme Court seems pretty clear.

Several organizations have taken action to support the County Clerk or oppose the state. The League of Women Voters of Texas, the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project filed an amicus brief, as HEB executive Charles Butt had previously done. The NAACP of Texas and the Anti-Defamation League Southwest Region filed a petition to intervene in opposition to the state, saying an injunction would harm the people they represent. Clerk Hollins’ response to Paxton is here. We should get the ruling by tomorrow, but we all know it will be appealed.

Speaking of such thing, here’s Hollins’ response to Hotze, from that ridiculous mandamus. The arguments are what you’d expect, and given the courtroom action in Houston I’d expect the Supremes to deny the writ, since there clearly is the time to litigate the matter. When they take action is of course anyone’s guess. Stay tuned.

Here comes Forward Majority

Wow.

A national Democratic super PAC is pumping over $6 million in to the fight for the Texas House majority.

The group, Forward Majority, plans to spend $6.2 million across 18 races that will likely determine who controls the lower chamber in January, according to an announcement first shared with The Texas Tribune. The money will go toward TV ads, digital ads and mail in each district.

“We have a once in a generation opportunity to establish a Democratic majority ahead of redistricting and cement Texas’ status as the biggest battleground state in the country,” Forward Majority spokesperson Ben Wexler-Waite said in a statement.

Democrats are currently nine seats away from the House majority — and growing confident in their chances of capturing the chamber. They have a released a slew of internal polls in recent weeks showing close races in many of their targeted districts, with the Democratic nominees clearly ahead in some.

[…]

Forward Majority has already been a significant player in Texas House races. It made a late push in the 2018 election, injecting $2.2 million into 32 lower-tier contests as Democrats went on to flip 12 seats. Forward Majority was also among the groups that went all in on the January special election for House District 28, which ended in disappointment for Democrats when Republican Gary Gates won by 16 points.

But many state and national Democratic groups were undeterred and still see a ripe opportunity this fall in Texas, especially with poll after poll auguring a tight presidential race at the top of the ticket. The GOP is on alert: The Republican State Leadership Committee has called Texas a “top priority” and promised to spend “several million dollars” to keep the state House red.

That’s a lot of money. I was expecting national dollars to come to Texas for this, which is one reason why I wasn’t too worried about the relative cash position of some Dem candidates. Anyway, the 18 districts are pretty much the ones you’d expect – you can see a list in the story – and this money ought to go a long way.

A win for those with lousy signatures

Some good news on the voting litigation front.

As Texas prepares for an expected deluge of mail-in votes in November, a federal judge has found that one facet of the state’s signature verification rules for those ballots is unconstitutional and must be reworked for the upcoming election.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled Tuesday that the state’s process for determining whether there is a mismatch between a voter’s signature on their ballot envelope and the signature the voter used on their application to vote by mail “plainly violates certain voters’ constitutional rights.”

In his order, Garcia ordered the Texas secretary of state to inform local election officials within 10 days that it is unconstitutional to reject a ballot based on a “perceived signature mismatch” without first notifying the voter about the mismatch and giving the voter a “meaningful opportunity” to correct the issue.

Additionally, to “protect voters’ rights” in the upcoming election, Garcia said the Texas secretary of state must either advise local election officials that mail-in ballots may not be rejected using the existing signature comparison process, or notify them that they are required to set up a rejection notification system that would allow voters to challenge a rejection.

[…]

Before mail-in ballots are counted, a committee of local election officials reviews them to ensure that a voter’s endorsement on the flap of a ballot envelope matches the signature that voter used on their application to vote by mail. They can also compare it to signatures on file with the county clerk or voter registrar that were made within the last six years.

But because the state election code does not establish any standards for review, the plaintiffs argued that the law is applied unequally, with each county “necessarily” developing “its own idiosyncratic, arbitrary, and ad hoc procedure to determine that a ballot should be rejected” with no requirement to notify voters about the rejections until 10 days after Election Day.

To correct course ahead of the November general election, Garcia ordered the Texas secretary of state to either halt all rejections based on a “perceived signature mismatch” or implement an “immediate remedial plan” that requires local election officials to notify a voter within one day of determining a perceived mismatch and allow the voter to challenge the rejection.

Under that plan, voters must be mailed notices of rejection within one day of a mismatch determination by the local review board. Those who provided phone numbers on their applications must be called at least once within one day of the decision.

See here for the background, and observe how adorably optimistic I was that this shouldn’t be a partisan issue since both parties use voting by mail. What can I say, it was 2019, you had to be there. I don’t have much to say now that I didn’t say then – this ruling makes total sense, the “standard” that was used was arbitrary and needlessly harsh, and it really is in everyone’s interests to make an effort to count these ballots. I assume Ken Paxton will appeal this because that’s what he does, but until then let’s be happy we got what we got. The Chron has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of September 7

The Texas Progressive Alliance prefers stew to bracelets and eating soup to throwing it as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Dallas ends its scooter experiment

Over in Dallas, never started in Houston.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

Tis better to have scootered and stopped than to have never scootered at all.

That is the consensus of a handful of Houston proponents of rental scooters as they watched Dallas this week order companies to pull the devices from local streets, citing crime and other issues with their use.

“We have received complaints about scooters and would like to make substantial changes to the scooter program,” said Dallas Transportation Director Mike Rogers, in a statement. “The changes will include public safety considerations so that the city may have safe modes of alternative transportation.”

Companies have flooded some cities with scooters people can rent by the minute with a smartphone app, part of a growing micro-mobility movement. Users can grab a scooter, motor to wherever they are going within a few blocks or miles and simply leave the scooter for the next person. Advocates say the scooters reduce car travel while making moving outdoors in inhospitable places — like scorching Texas — possible.

Critics call the scooters mobile clutter, complaining they crowd sidewalks and pose a safety hazard to pedestrians and riders.

That is the point Dallas hit earlier this week. City officials told Bird, Spin, Jump and any other companies still out there to cease operations on Wednesday and remove all the scooters by Friday, bringing an end to a popular but contentious debate about dockless devices and local transportation, for now.

It is a debate Houston mostly has avoided simply by doing nothing. Regulations in Houston make deploying the scooters murky at best — much as companies such as Uber and Lyft began operating in a cloud of uncertainty related to taxi rules. The consensus was Houston’s regulations would need to be changed before scooters hit the streets for rent.

Houston was an outlier in Texas in not having scooters. Dallas and Austin were both fertile markets for the devices, at least until COVID significantly upended the business and some of the companies collapsed or cut back. San Antonio finalized its agreement with the companies in January after 10 months of public discussion, allowing Razor and Bird to deploy up to 1,000 scooters each.

[…]

Houston officials said scooter regulations remain possible, but are not a high priority compared to such efforts as Vision Zero to eliminate roadway deaths. .

“The city’s focus right now is on implementing Vision Zero and adding bike lanes across the city,” said Maria Irshad, deputy director of the city’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department. “At this time, a program is not under consideration but we are studying it and trying to figure out how it could safely work.”

Officials also are working through a number of transportation-related rule changes, including specific prohibitions and greater enforcement of illegal parking in bike lanes.

Meanwhile, use of Houston’s B-Cycle system is booming during the pandemic as bike-sharing officials ready for more expansion, including 100 new e-bikes that bring their own challenges related to trail safety.

Until I saw this headline earlier in the week, I’d completely forgotten that just over a year ago it looked like scooters, or at least some proposed scooter regulations, were about to debut in Houston. Crazy how things can change, huh? Scooters may have failed in Dallas, but they remain a success in San Antonio, as long as they keep off the sidewalk. We can only speculate at this point what their fate might have been in Houston if Lime and Bird and the rest had simply taken the Uber/Lyft approach and invaded the city first, letting the regulatory issues sort themselves out later.

Honestly, I think the main reason why scooters have taken a back seat in Houston is that the city’s attention has been much more on bikes and expanding bicycle infrastructure. B-Cycle has been successful and continues to expand, while Dallas tried and failed to go with dockless bike sharing. The city of Houston, along with Harris County and the Bayou Greenway Initiative, has been busy building out its bike infrastructure, which by the way is off limits to scooters as they are not people-powered. Also, too, we do have electric bikes in the pipeline, and they pretty much serve the same transportational niche as scooters.

So maybe this is a lot of fuss about nothing much. Or maybe the problem was that the scooter business model doesn’t necessarily work everywhere, and perhaps Dallas and eventually Houston would be served better by a non-profit scooter rental system like B-Cycle. I mean, if it really is about solving a people-moving problem that enables mobility without cars, then it shouldn’t matter what the entity behind the scooters is. I’ve said all along, I’m happy that other cities have taken the lead in working out all the kinks in this process before it comes to Houston, so my thanks to the people of Big D for their service. The Dallas Observer has more.