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September 15th, 2020:

The case for voting in person

From Wired, an argument for worrying less about voting by mail because voting in person is still a fine way to do it.

Casting a ballot in person, it turns out, isn’t so dangerous after all. Early in the pandemic, this might have seemed a crazy thing to suggest. The Wisconsin primary, back in March, was widely described in apocalyptic tones. The New York Times called it “a dangerous spectacle that forced voters to choose between participating in an important election and protecting their health.” After state Democrats fought unsuccessfully to extend the deadline for mailing back absentee ballots, the ensuing photos of long lines at Milwaukee polling places seemed to presage an explosion of Covid-19 cases.

But the bomb never blew. As I observed in May, there was no noticeable rise in coronavirus cases thanks to the Wisconsin primary. A follow-up study by researchers at the City of Milwaukee Health Department and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded, “No clear increase in cases, hospitalizations, or deaths was observed after the election.” In fact, case numbers in Milwaukee were lower in the weeks after the election than in the weeks before it. There are caveats: In-person turnout was low overall thanks to broad use of mail-in ballots, and we don’t know how coronavirus prevalence in March will compare with November. Still, it’s telling that there have been no credible reports of virus spikes attributable to any other election this year, even though ill-considered polling place closures have led to further instances of Milwaukee-style overcrowding.

Why might voting be safer than expected? We now know that the coronavirus spreads mostly when people are in sustained indoor contact—settings like a restaurant, a bar, or a shared home or office. The risk of transmission in fleeting encounters, by contrast, is small. Outdoors, it is vanishingly so. Even the massive protests following the killing of George Floyd, which even sympathizers feared would seed outbreaks, did not, according to several large studies. The pandemic is really an indoor problem. Even the defining image of the danger of voting during a pandemic—lines around the block—serves to illustrate why there’s little to fear. For most people, standing in a spaced-out line, outdoors, while wearing masks, entails at most a paltry risk.

“I think if carefully done, according to the guidelines, there’s no reason I can see why that’d not be the case,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at a recent National Geographic event. “If you go and wear a mask, if you observe the physical distancing, and don’t have a crowded situation, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to do that.” Likewise, a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice advises, “In-person voting can be conducted safely if jurisdictions take the necessary steps to minimize the risk of transmission of Covid-19 to voters and election workers.”

This assumes that any lines one may have to wait on will be primarily outside. That’s not been my experience in past elections, but I feel reasonably confident that outdoor lines will be the norm this time around. In Harris and Bexar and Dallas and hopefully other counties, there will be some larger venues, like convention centers and sports arenas, being used as voting locations, which will also help. Point being, I tend to agree with the assessment that the risk of in person voting, assuming widespread mask usage, is fairly minimal.

There are also practical considerations about voting by mail. Jamelle Bouie wrote in the Times that a key piece of Trump’s Election Day strategy is to delegitimize any votes that are not counted on Election Day. Remember how many elections Democrats won in 2018 due to mail ballots that weren’t counted until after Election Day? That’s been called the “blue shift”, and Donald Trump will scream from the rooftops that those mail ballots don’t count and amount to stealing the election if he’s in any position to claim a win on the evening of November 3, regardless of the lie of his statement. The best way to prevent that is to have as many votes counted by the time the news people start giving us numbers from around the country. That means voting in person. Note that in some states, even if your mail ballot is received way early, it may be the case that it won’t be officially tallied until Election Day, which could still lead to this situation. Voting in person will not have that problem.

Other concerns include the unknown potential for mail delivery delays, which G. Elliott Morris tried to quantify, and problems with mail ballots being rejected due to alleged signature mismatches or other issues, which is something that of course happens at a higher rate to Black and Latino voters. (Black voters are, understandably, more dubious about voting by mail.) The recent court order helps in this regard, but it’s still a factor, and we don’t know yet if there will be an appeal. I know it sounds ridiculous, but younger voters are just simply not used to using the postal service, and may have problems with mail ballots as a result. All of this may turn out to be minor, but maybe it won’t. We just don’t know. Again, the remedy here is to vote in person if that is a reasonable option for you.

Of course, to some extent in Texas, this is an academic point. The large majority of us cannot vote by mail, something the state leadership has done everything in its power to ensure will still be the case. I have said and will continue to say, if you do qualify for a mail ballot, by all means apply for it and use it. Having more people vote by mail not only keeps them safe, it also means shorter lines and faster processing times at voting locations, which is something we all want. Just be very prompt about it, and track your ballot to make sure it is received. Use a dropoff location if practical. The real point here is that we all actually do need to make a plan to vote, and that plan needs to encompass the when, the where, and the how. Be part of the solution to ensure that everyone can vote as easily and safely as possible. I don’t need to say how much is riding on that.

Cite and release for Houston

Good.

Houston is preparing a cite-and-release policy that could let people accused of certain misdemeanors off with a ticket instead of an arrest, perhaps the city’s most significant bid at criminal justice reform since the killing of George Floyd ignited a renewed national reckoning over policing.

Mayor Sylvester Turner previously has alluded to the effort, and the proposal is scheduled for discussion at the Public Safety Committee on Thursday. City Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who chairs that committee, said she has helped work on the policy.

“I’m thankful to community groups for advocating for this, and to HPD and Mayor Turner for bringing this forward so quickly,” Kamin said.

The details of the measure, which remain in the works, were not immediately available Monday, including which offenses would be included and whether tickets would be required — or merely preferred — instead of arrests. It also is unclear whether the measure would be an ordinance passed by the city council or an administration policy.

Since 2007, state law has allowed citations for all Class C misdemeanors and some others. Among them: possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana; criminal mischief (damage up to $750); graffiti; theft of up to $750; providing contraband in a correctional facility; and driving with an invalid license. In those cases, officers can give offenders a written citation with a date and time to appear in court, allowing them to await the hearing without going to jail.

Advocates and elected officials in Houston have been calling for a cite-and-release policy for years. The “Justice Can’t Wait” report, released in July by a broad coalition of Houston-area criminal justice advocacy groups, renewed calls for the policy, and five city council members echoed that in a letter released late last month.

The mayor’s own transition team recommended such a policy in a 2016 report after Turner first was elected.

See here for some background. I know some people can’t sleep at night unless everyone who has ever encountered a police officer is in a jail cell, but would you rather have those officers spend their time hauling graffiti artists and people with expired licenses off to jail, or patrolling the streets after writing them a ticket? The Harris County Sheriff’s Office has had a similar policy since February, and as far as I can tell the region has not fallen into anarchy and chaos. Keep people out of jail and keep cops on the streets. And maybe that Task Force report (due by the end of the month) will have more.

UPDATE: Here’s a later version of the story, with some back-and-forth about whether the city should implement this now as a matter of policy, or draft an ordinance to mandate cite-and-release and implement it that way.

SBOE updates sex ed curriculum

All things considered, especially the past history of the State Board of Education and its shenanigans, this could have been worse. It’s not great, but the potential for disaster was monumentally high.

The Texas State Board of Education gave preliminary approval this week to a sex education policy that includes teaching middle schoolers about birth control beyond abstinence — its first attempt to revise that policy since 1997.

In jam-packed meetings held Wednesday through Friday, the 15-member Republican-dominated board came one step closer to revising minimum standards for what Texas students learn about health and sex. It is expected to take a final vote in November.

The board voted to teach seventh and eighth grade students to “analyze the effectiveness and the risks and failure rates … of barrier protection and other contraceptive methods in the prevention of STDs, STIs and pregnancy,” in addition to the importance of abstinence. Currently, learning about birth control methods beyond abstinence is only a requirement in high school, where health education is an optional course.

But the board rejected proposals to teach middle school students about the importance of consent or teach any students to define gender identity and sexual orientation.

[…]

Over the last several months, panels of educators and medical professionals formulated recommendations to overhaul the health and sex education policies.

Board members clashed on several edits to those recommendations, including whether to include explicit reference to sexual orientation and gender identity. On Thursday and Friday, Ruben Cortez, a Brownsville Democrat, unsuccessfully proposed teaching middle schoolers and high schoolers to define sexual orientation and gender identity. He said the proposals would help LGBTQ students, who studies show have a higher rate of suicide attempts in part due to discrimination.

“One of my children this summer came out to us and the fact that she had to bottle that in for years thinking that we wouldn’t accept her,” he said, getting choked up as he spoke. “It’s difficult to imagine what other students who don’t live in a tolerant house would go through if we don’t insert language like this to help our students.”

Most Republicans on the board opposed his proposal, saying they would rather not include it in the minimum standards schools are required to teach. Instead, they said, they would rather let local school districts vote to add LGBTQ issues to their own health education policies, since state law gives them that flexibility. Matt Robinson, from Friendswood, was the sole Republican who voted with Democrats to add the language Friday.

“I would like to see this left up to being a community decision,” said Pat Hardy, a Fort Worth Republican.

“I don’t think at the high school level we can afford to be cryptic with regards to our youth,” said Marisa Perez-Diaz, a Converse Democrat. “Identity exists. We need to talk about it regardless of one’s sensitivity and discomfort.”

Most Republicans also opposed Cortez’s proposals Thursday and Friday to teach middle and high school students to “explain the importance of treating all people with dignity and respect regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Instead, they approved teaching students to prevent “all forms of bullying and cyberbullying such as emotional, physical, social and sexual.” Schools can choose to include bullying as a result of sexual orientation and gender identity in those lessons, Republicans said.

On Wednesday night, board members battled over whether to teach sixth graders the definition of consent as it relates to physical intimacy and to “explain why all physical contact should be consensual.” Republicans said consent was a legally murky concept and instead prioritized students learning to be able to say no to unwanted approaches.

“In my opinion, refusal skills, personal boundaries, personal privacy covers this area at this age,” said Marty Rowley, an Amarillo Republican. “Eleven and 12 is too young in my opinion.”

I’d argue that stuff needs to be discussed from the time the kid is in preschool. Which, in a good preschool, it often is. It’s basic bodily autonomy, as in no one has the right to touch you if you don’t want them to. I don’t think it gets all that more complicated when you’re talking about touch in an explicitly sexual context. I can understand why people may be uncomfortable with that, but that’s just too bad. This was a significant missed opportunity.

Same thing with sexual orientation and gender identity. Perhaps what some people fail to understand is that the kids themselves are a lot more comfortable with that subject than many adults are. And kids who are gay or trans or nonbinary generally know who they are by middle school. We can’t choose to not engage with them on the subject. It’s alienating and insulting to them. Leaving it up to the locals may sound like a reasonable compromise, except that we know some school districts are hostile to LGBTQ students, and could not be trusted to set this material themselves. Some minimum level of standard is needed, and the SBOE whiffed on it. Basically, what was needed in both of these cases was honest, factual information, which would benefit all of the students. This change will not provide it to them, and that is a significant failure on the SBOE’s part.

The good news is the baby step away from abstinence-only education, which is a travesty with harmful repercussions. It’s not enough, but any movement in that direction is welcome. If we can take advantage of the opportunity we have this fall to elect some better members to the SBOE, maybe we can take more steps in that direction, and get on the right track with these other matters. The Chron and Reform Austin have more.

Houston to allow some limited events

I dunno, man. I get the impulse, but I don’t think I’m ready.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston will allow certain events in what the mayor calls “controlled environments” to resume in the city, marking his most significant move toward reopening as the spread of COVID-19 slows here.

The events still will have limited crowds, with a maximum capacity of 25 percent, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced at a news conference Wednesday. All attendees must wear masks, answer a virus questionnaire, submit to a temperature screening and maintain social distancing.

The events that received the city’s approval so far are: a drive-in tailgate Thursday for the Texans: 100 cars are allowed, with a maximum of four people per car; Houston Symphony concerts: 150 guests will be allowed in the 3,000-seat Jones Hall auditorium; and Houston Dynamo and Dash games at BBVA Stadium: the teams are preparing for up to 3,000 fans, which would be about 14 percent capacity.

The Dynamo averaged 15,674 fans at 17 home games in 2019, and the Dash garnered an average of 4,086 fans, the teams said. The schedule for Major League Soccer’s Phase 2 has not been released yet, so it is not yet clear when fans will return. The teams’ plans for welcoming fans include staggered entry times for the stadium, and “seating pods” that minimize interaction between different groups of fans.

“I think we are all wanting to open up even more,” Turner said, “but we also recognize that it is better to be cautious rather than to be aggressive, and then finding ourselves having to go right back to the very beginning.”

While transmission is decreasing, the virus continues to spread in Houston. The city has driven down its positivity rate — the number of tests that come back positive — to 6.6 percent. Turner had set a goal of getting that number, which peaked above 25 percent in late June and early July, below 5 percent by the end of August.

The national average is 5.3 percent, according to Johns Hopkins University. Some states, like New York and Connecticut, have seen their rates drop to below 1 percent. Houston has reported 66,483 cases of the virus and 906 deaths as of Wednesday.

Dr. Jill Weatherhead, assistant professor of infectious diseases and tropical medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, said the region has made significant progress, but it has not reached the point where it is in control of the virus.

“Any large gathering where there are people in close contact — particularly if you’re indoors and generating a lot of respiratory droplets, if you are yelling or screaming or singing — it’s going to increase the chance of outbreaks,” she said.

[…]

The city is requiring an extensive list of safety protocols, [Susan Christian, director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events] said. The three events approved Wednesday already had adopted most of those protocols.

“We just had to tweak it a bit,” she said. “These producers have been working on these guidelines, as we have, for quite some time now.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office said the county is waiting for its threat index to lower before it considers allowing similarly-sized events. The county remains at the most serious threat level, which “signifies a severe and uncontrolled level of COVID-19.”

“Trends are moving in the right direction right now, but we’re not quite there yet,” said Rafael Lemaitre, Hidalgo’s communications director.

I’ve stared at this draft for some time now, and I still don’t know what to say. I lean towards the county’s view, but I get what the city is trying to do. There’s got to be a lot of pressure for some return to having public events, and of course not being able to have them is a drain on city finances. You can make a risk-based assessment for either position. I just hope this works out.