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October 2nd, 2020:

Abbott moves to stop mail ballot dropoff locations

I don’t know about you, but this reeks of fear to me.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday declared that counties can designate only one location to collect completed mail ballots from voters, forcing Harris County to abandon 11 sites set up for that purpose.

Abbott’s proclamation said counties must also allow poll watchers to “observe any activity conducted at the early voting clerk’s office” related to the delivery of marked ballots. He said the measure was designed to improve ballot security.

“The state of Texas has a duty to voters to maintain the integrity of our election,” Abbott said in a statement. “These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting.”

Abbott did not cite any examples of voter fraud, which election law experts say is exceedingly rare.

Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins had set up 12 locations — 11 of them county clerk annex offices — throughout the 1,777-square-mile county to collet mail ballots. The county now will only be able to accept ballots only at its election headquarters at NRG Arena.

This new executive order is here. This is of a piece with the Hotze mandamus to limit mail ballot dropoffs to Election Day itself. It’s telling that Abbott is just now issuing orders about the use of multiple locations for mail ballot dropoffs, because County Clerk Chris Hollins announced his intention to use the 11 County Clerk Annex offices for this purpose in mid-July, which is to say two and a half months ago. And Abbott is just now taking action? I mean, come on.

It’s really hard to escape the conclusion that this is a desperation move by Abbott, in part to try to curb Democratic voting, and in part to quell the wingnut rebellion that’s been brewing against him. And let’s be clear, the Texas GOP as recently as the runup to the 2018 election would have laughed at the Dems’ efforts to get their voters out. “Oh, the Dems think they can boost their turnout and win some elections, aren’t they adorable.” They’re taking it all quite seriously now, that much is for sure.

It’s transparent and it’s ridiculous, and it makes no sense as anything but a pure partisan power move.

Now to be sure, people don’t have to use a dropoff location. They can just use the mail as always, and now there’s a nifty mail ballot tracker to ensure that your ballot gets received and processed. I feel reasonably confident saying that most people were planning to vote by mail as they had done before. But that’s not the point. The point is that this was a simple and innovative way to make voting easier for people, something Chris Hollins has excelled at in his brief time as County Clerk. Greg Abbott’s move is the exact opposite of that, and it serves no good purpose.

And I remind you, it was done at the last minute, after weeks and weeks of people being told they could use these annex locations. What have Texas Republicans had to say about last-minute changes to the voting process?

I hope they have a lawsuit filed before I get to publish this post. (Per the Trib, one may indeed be filed today, perhaps more than one.) And I can’t wait to see how the Fifth Circuit applies its own jurisprudence to this question.

(On a side note, I will note that while I have heaped all kinds of scorn and contempt on the multitudinous Hotze vote-suppression lawsuits, I have also repeatedly agreed that there is a serious debate to have about the extent of Abbott’s executive powers and the proper role of our extremely part-time Legislature in all this. Because Hotze and company are a bunch of rancid clowns, they are a terrible vehicle for posing those questions. Perhaps by opening this war on a second front, Abbott will finally have a worthy opponent putting them before a judge.)

For a bit of variety, and to provide a summary of all this, here’s a press release from All on the Line, a national campaign to restore fairness to our democracy and ensure every American has an equal say in our government.

“This last minute order is another link in a very long chain of voter suppression and intimidation in Texas,” said Genevieve Van Cleve, All On The Line state director. “Governor Greg Abbott is working to make it harder for grandparents to vote and allowing so-called poll watchers to glower at them while they do it.”

In preparation for the November general election, counties with large populations including Harris and Travis have designated and staffed satellite drop off locations to make it easier for those not comfortable sending their completed ballots through the mail.

Texas has 254 counties. Loving County has a population of 160 people. Harris County has a population of 4,713,000 people. Governor Abbott’s order allows each county, regardless of size, the same number of drop off locations for mail-in ballots: one. Further, he has sanctioned citizens to “observe” people delivering their ballots.

Gov. Abbott’s order is meant to suppress turnout and intimidate voters. Those most likely to be impacted are seniors and Texans living with disabilities who rely on mail-in-ballots. The very same people who are most vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus.

Further, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled days before Gov. Abbott’s order that reinstating straight ticket voting was impossible due largely to the close proximity to the election. Yet, he’s changing the rules of the election with just days to go.

“These last minute changes to the rules will not deter Texas voters from casting their ballots, despite the Governor’s intentions. Texans are energized, well-informed, and will demand that their voices be heard and respected at the ballot box,” Van Cleve said.

Early Vote begins in Texas on October 13th. The last day to register to vote in Texas is October 5th. Mail-in Ballots that are not postmarked must be received by 7pm on Election Day; Mail-in Ballots postmarked by 7pm on Election Day must be received by 5pm the day after Election Day.

Next stop, the litigation. I’m sure I’ll have a post about it tomorrow. The Statesman, the Current, and Reform Austin have more.

Speaker’s race? What Speaker’s race?

Just a reminder that one of the three most powerful political offices in the state is on the ballot this November, even if it’s largely invisible to us.

Found on the Twitters

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson fielded a question last week that’s been on the minds of many members of the Texas House: If her party wins control of the lower chamber in November, will she be a candidate for speaker?

“Well, if I can get James Frank’s support, I probably will be,” the Houston Democrat said with a chuckle during a Texas Tribune Festival panel, referring to her Republican colleague also on the screen.

Frank responded with a laugh of his own: “I’m pretty sure if Democrats take over in November … that she’ll be a candidate.”

The exchange, though lighthearted, was indicative of how uncertain the 150-member chamber is ahead of a legislative session that lawmakers say will be their toughest in years. With the pending retirement of House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, the lower chamber knows someone new will be in charge in January — but not a single member has so far declared their candidacy to seek the gavel.

[…]

Of course, members could break ranks and file their candidacy for speaker with the Texas Ethics Commission before November. Members will formally elect a new speaker on the first day of the regular session in January — and whoever ends up taking the gavel will be one of the state’s most consequential leaders as the Legislature responds to the coronavirus pandemic, grapples with billions of dollars in shortfalls to the state budget and undergoes a once-in-a-decade redistricting cycle.

Members are already weighing who would be a viable candidate if the margin is more narrow than the 83-67 partisan split from the 2019 legislative session. Some think that’s more likely than the chamber flipping entirely. References to the 2008 elections — and the 76-74 split it produced — came up repeatedly in conversations with members, with many suggesting the chamber’s next speaker will need supporters from both parties to win the gavel.

In the wake of that 2008 election, then-state Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, won the speaker’s race after most of the chamber’s Democrats and some Republicans coalesced around his bid. After Straus announced his retirement in 2017, a more hardline conservative faction of Republicans helped push a change to the groups’s bylaws to select a speaker within the caucus and then vote as a bloc on the floor. Democrats also tried to rally their ranks to commit to voting for a candidate as a bloc, though neither party had an enforcement mechanism.

None of those elements have come up in any sort of tangible way so far this year, which some members chalk up again to the uncertainty surrounding the November election and the possibility that the margin will be more narrow than in 2019.

Jim Dunnam, a former House member from Waco who served in the lower chamber from 1997 to 2011, said it would be presumptuous for members to start committing to speaker candidates before they have even won reelection, especially given predictions that November will yield tight results.

Dunnam, who at one point also chaired the House Democratic Caucus, also waved off the notion of one party exclusively electing a speaker candidate.

“The speaker is supposed to be the speaker of the House,” he said, “not the speaker of one caucus.”

[…]

In conversations with nearly two dozen members, staffers and lobbyists — nearly all of whom declined to be named due to the sensitive nature of internal House politics — several GOP and Democratic names were mentioned repeatedly as members to keep an eye on as the speaker’s race develops.

On the Republican side: Four Price of Amarillo; Trent Ashby of Lufkin; Chris Paddie of Marshall; Dade Phelan of Beaumont; Geanie Morrison of Victoria; Tom Craddick of Midland, the longest-serving House member and a former speaker; Craig Goldman of Fort Worth; Frank of Wichita Falls and Matt Krause of Fort Worth. On the Democratic side: Joe Moody of El Paso, the House speaker pro tempore; Rafael Anchia of Dallas; Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio; Thompson; Turner, the caucus chair; Oscar Longoria of Mission and Donna Howard of Austin.

Each candidate’s chances at winning the gavel are influenced by the partisan breakdowns in the House. GOP members have suggested that if Republicans pick up a couple of seats and increase their majority, a more ideological speaker candidate like Frank, Goldman or Krause could be on the table. There’s also a theory that a Democratic candidate like Thompson — the second longest-serving House member and the longest-serving woman and African-American in history at the Legislature — has the experience to navigate the House through the upcoming session.

I agree that which party has the majority, and by how much, will matter a lot. And hoo boy, what might happen if we have a 75-75 split – there would surely be a compromise power-sharing agreement out there, but just agreeing about who chairs what committees gives me a headache. I tend to believe that if Dems have a majority, the job will be Rep. Thompson’s if she wants it, but she may not want it. She might prefer to be in the trenches passing the priority bills, or she may just decide the job is too much trouble to be worth it. Joe Moody may be best positioned to be a compromise candidate if the parties are tied or even if Republicans have a 76-74 lead but can’t settle their ideological rifts and find their own consensus; in other words, he could be the Democratic Joe Straus. I feel like TMF is the choice if Dems wind up with a bit of a cushion and are feeling a bit salty. I’m totally spitballing here.

Whoever wins the job in the event of a Dem house, he or she will have a slightly easier go of it than a Dem Speaker from before 2010 would have had, as the caucus is more unified on issues these days. That’s largely because there are no more conservative Dems from rural districts, and thus no one who has to be appeased or coddled on things like LGBTQ equality or gun control or immigration. Passing a budget that fully funds education and prioritizes coronavirus relief, and maximizing Democratic leverage on redistricting, are the two top tasks. When the Dems get together after the election to plan their strategy for the session, those have to be the main questions that any Speaker wannabe must answer. We know how important this election is, but in part that’s because what comes after it is so damn important, too.

You can track your mail ballot in Harris County

Nice.

Harris County residents now are able to track the status of their mail ballots through a new system launched by County Clerk Christopher Hollins Wednesday.

For the first time, a voter can see when their ballot is mailed to them and when it is processed by the clerk’s office after being returned.

“Providing voters with more information … gives voters peace of mind about the mail voting process,” Hollins said in a statement. “I encourage Harris County voters who have applied to vote by mail to track their ballots using our website.”

To do so, residents must visit www.harrisvotes.com/tracking and enter their name, birth date and last four digits of their Social Security or Texas ID number. The Secretary of State’s Office did not immediately respond to a question about how many other counties have such a tracker, though it offers the service on its website.

See here for the Clerk’s press release. Over 200K people have been sent mail ballot applications so far – a few people have even received, filled out, and returned their mail ballots already. We’re still waiting on the Supreme Court to see how many more mail ballot applications get sent out, and of course now we have to deal with Greg Abbott’s mail ballot dropoff bullshit, but those of you who have requested them, this is how you can be sure that yours gets to the finish line.

Endorsement watch: A Congressional four-pack

Going once again in numerical order…

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, CD07.

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher

Two years after her first-ever run for public office resulted in the defeat of a nine-term Republican incumbent, Democratic U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher faces re-election with a solid record of accomplishment and a reputation for working across the aisle and serving constituents.

She has kept her promises.

We recommend that voters in Texas’ 7th Congressional District let her continue the job she has started.

[…]

Although a political novice, Fletcher, 45, hit the ground running in her first term, authoring a bill to cut federal red tape and speed disaster recovery funding that was much needed in the Houston area.

The measure passed the House with just seven votes against as Fletcher teamed with Fort Bend Republican Rep. Pete Olson and even pulled in conservative North Carolina Republican Mark Meadows as a co-sponsor. Meadows is now President Donald Trump’s chief of staff.

Fletcher also smartly sought spots on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, where she is chair of the energy subcommittee. Other panels might be more glamorous or attention-grabbing but they are not as crucial to the interests of the region NASA calls home and where the oil and gas industry and the Houston Ship Channel mean jobs, commerce and development.

Rep. Fletcher has been exactly the member of Congress I expected she would be. Smart, hard-working, very present in the district, getting stuff done. I feel good about her re-election, and I will be very interested to see what happens with CD07 in redistricting. In a world where John Culberson was still in that seat, I had figured it would continue to be moved west, to shed the blue urban-core precincts and chase red areas out in Fort Bend and Waller and wherever else. Now maybe it absorbs more blue precincts in an effort to shore up or win back any or all of CDs 02, 10, and 22. It’s going to be an exciting time. I have an interview with Rep. Fletcher coming up that will run on Monday, so look for that.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, CD18.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee

Even her opponents acknowledge that U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has earned every bit of her reputation as “a fighter.”

In the 25 years that she has represented central Houston’s 18th Congressional District, Jackson Lee, 70, has never been shy about expressing her opinion or battling for her causes.

Whether it’s bringing billions of dollars to the region for high-speed rail, pushing for disaster relief, financing a state-of-the-art automotive training center at the Houston Community College North Forest Campus, championing the placement of COVID-19 testing sites in her district, or intervening in deportation cases, Jackson Lee has a record of getting things done.

“I take advantage of the opportunities of power,” she told the editorial board. “Not to use for myself but to use for others. That is what a congressperson does.”

That’s why district residents have sent her to Washington for 13 terms with never less than 70 percent of the vote.

And it’s a major reason we recommend Jackson Lee be returned to Congress to use her experience, seniority and determination to continue delivering for her district and the state of Texas.

Well, the fact that this is a deep blue district is a good reason why voters re-elect her every two years by fifty points or so. The fact that she has rarely faced a serious primary challenger and easily bats aside the challenges she has had is due to her hard work and good results. I’ve been her constituent for nearly all of those 25 years, and I’m happy to vote for her each time. And by the way, her Republican opponent is one of the plaintiffs in the attempted assault on Harris County early voting and mail ballot dropoff locations. I’m sure the Chron would have noted that in their endorsement editorial if they had known about it in time.

Sri Kulkarni, CD22.

Sri Kulkarni

Changing demographics and a narrow escape in the 2018 elections helped persuade longtime Republican Congressman Pete Olson not to run for reelection in U.S. House District 22 this year.

The six-term incumbent’s departure sets up a showdown that mirrors the presidential race with Sri Preston Kulkarni representing the moderate approach of Democrat Joe Biden and Fort Bend County sheriff Troy Nehls aligned with the positions of President Donald Trump and the Republican Party.

The ballot also includes Libertarian Joseph LeBlanc who is running on the party’s platform of protecting individual rights and limiting government overreach.

Kulkarni, 41, a former foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State, made his mark two years ago by running within 5 points of Olson and establishing himself as a candidate with the intelligence and cooperative attitude necessary to build coalitions and bring people together for common goals.

That makes Kulkarni our choice in this racially diverse district, which includes most of Fort Bend County, a section of Harris County and the cities of Friendswood, Missouri City, Needville, Rosenberg, and Sugar Land.

Kulkarni is one of several repeat candidates from 2018, and like the others he’s exceeded his strong fundraising from last time. He put this district on the national map in 2018, and it was there from the beginning this cycle. He’ll make a terrific member of Congress.

Rep. Sylvia Garcia, CD29.

Rep. Sylvia Garcia

Long before Sylvia Garcia was thrust into the national spotlight as a manager in President Donald Trump’s impeachment hearings, the first-term congresswoman had carved out a big name in Houston politics.

The former social worker and legal aid lawyer served five terms as director and presiding judge of the Houston Municipal System, as Houston city controller and on Harris County Commissioner’s Court before being elected to represent District 6 in the Texas Senate.

That experience gave Garcia, 70, an understanding of how government can help people — something she carried with her to Washington D.C. when in 2018 she became one of the first two Texas Latinas elected to Congress.

Her first term has been busy, and included Garcia being tapped by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to serve as a manager in Trump’s Senate impeachment hearing. That a freshman representative was recruited to fill such a visible and critical role speaks to Garcia’s knack for forming alliances and maneuvering the halls of politics.

Those skills earn Garcia our recommendation in the 29th Congressional District race. They also help her serve her district, a mostly working class swath of Harris County that includes Pasadena, Jacinto City, Baytown, Galena Park and South Houston and is home to the Houston Ship Channel and one of the nation’s largest petrochemical complexes.

I will say the same thing about Rep. Garcia as I said about her fellow first-term colleague Rep. Fletcher: She’s exactly the member of Congress I expected her to be, and basically for the same reasons. Long may she serve.

Still to be addressed by the Chron: CDs 02, 08, 09, 10, and 36. Obviously, 02 and 10 are the ones of greatest interest.