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October 3rd, 2020:

Lawsuit filed over Abbott’s order to limit mail ballot dropoff locations

As expected.

Voting rights advocates and civic groups have rushed to the courthouse in a bid to block Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s Oct. 1 order allowing Texas counties no more than one drop-off location for voters casting absentee ballots, calling the directive an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote that will disproportionately impact voters of color in the state’s biggest cities.

The Texas and National Leagues of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters of Texas and two Texas voters asked a federal judge in Austin in a lawsuit filed late Thursday to overturn the governor’s order, which forced Travis and Harris counties — two of the state’s most important Democratic strongholds — to shutter a number of drop-off sites they had already opened this week.

“The impact of this eleventh-hour decisions is momentous, targets Texas’ most vulnerable voters—older voters, and voters with disabilities—and results in wild variations in access to absentee voting drop-off locations depending on the county a voter resides in,” attorneys for the groups argued. “It also results in predictable disproportionate impacts on minority communities that already hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis.”

Attorneys also pointed out that Abbott was making a major change to election procedures just weeks away from an election — an action the state and its attorneys argued was improper in a separate federal lawsuit over straight-ticket voting.

[…]

The lawsuit will have to move quickly, with early voting set to begin in less than two weeks on Oct. 13.

Harris and Travis counties had each set up multiple locations for accepting absentee ballots and had already begun accepting them before Abbott issued his order shutting down the satellite locations. Voting rights experts say access to these locations is especially important given concerns over U.S. Postal Service delays and that closing them will disproportionately impact voters with disabilities or without access to reliable transportation. Harris County is home to 2.4 million registered voters and stretches across some 1,700 square miles, more than the entire state of Rhode Island.

Ralph Edelbach of Cypress, an 82-year-old voter among those suing Abbott, had planned to drop his ballot off at a Harris County location that was 16 miles from his home — but now will have to travel 36 miles, nearly 90 minutes round trip, to reach the only location Abbott has allowed to stay open, according to court documents.

At a press conference Friday morning, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said he could reopen the shuttered locations “at the drop of a dime.”

“Ultimately, anything that’s done to decrease voter convenience, to put obstacles in the way of the voter, is voter suppression, and will lead to disenfranchisement,” he said.

Abbott’s order, which came a day after the Texas solicitor general approved Harris County’s plan for multiple locations under earlier guidance from the governor, also said counties must allow poll watchers to observe goings-on at ballot drop-off sites. Voting rights advocates fear that poll watchers, who are selected by candidates or political parties, will seek to intimidate voters, as has been documented in the past.

Abbott claimed the limits on drop-off locations were necessary to ensure election integrity. But he provided no evidence that the drop-off sites enable voter fraud, which experts say is rare.

And the procedures for delivering an absentee ballot are strict. Voters must present an approved form of identification, show up during specified hours and can only deliver their own ballots.

See here for the background and here for a copy of the complaint. The “approval” from the Solicitor General’s office to the Hollins plan is in reference to the brief filed by Paxton’s office in response to the Hotze mandamus that had already challenged what Harris County was doing. Have fun squaring that circle, y’all.

The Chron adds some details.

The suit, filed in federal court in Austin, alleges that the order violates the Voting Rights Act and First and Fourteenth Amendments, which guarantee equal protection of the right to vote, and will disproportionately affect minorities and older citizens who are at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19.

[…]

Thursday’s move by Abbott was made in stark contrast to a legal argument that Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins had made in response to a lawsuit the day prior. Then, Hawkins argued in a brief to the Texas Supreme Court that nothing in previous orders disallowed the interpretation of the clerks’ “office” to include annex offices, and the Secretary of State had told local officials that any clerk’s office sufficed for dropoff.

It marked the latest instance of Abbott reversing course under political pressure over his response to the pandemic.

Abbott had spent months holding off on a statewide mask mandate, but later enacted one in line with other states. He similarly resisted a statewide stay-at-home order until cases began to surge.

Following an uproar from conservatives over a Dallas salon owner who faced jail time as indirect result of her keeping her business open in violation of Abbott’s stay-at-home order, he limited punishment to fines.

[…]

“As many states are expanding ballot drop off options to ensure voter confidence this year, it is vile to see Texas’s attempts to do the opposite,” said Celina Stewart, senior director of advocacy and litigation for the League of Women Voters.

The Texas director of AARP, which represents more than 2.3 million seniors in the state, said Friday that she was “deeply concerned” about the new restrictions on ballot dropoff.

“During a pandemic, now more than ever, older voters need confidence that they can vote safely,” Tina Tran said. “Texas voters, especially those 50-plus, do not need another impediment to voting.”

Despite Texas having some of the most restrictive voting and vote-by-mail laws in the country — it’s one of just five states where voters have to provide an excuse other than COVID-19 to request a mail ballot — counties have reported higher-than-normal levels of interest in the practice.

To manage the influx, Harris County had planned on having locations at the main county clerk office and 11 annex offices throughout the 1,777-square-mile county to collect mail ballots. Neighboring Fort Bend County had planned to open five locations, and Travis County had planned on having three in addition to its main office.

Dallas County told CBS 11 News that it had planned to open multiple locations but is now prohibited.

County officials said they were given no notice of the order, which took effect within 24 hours.

This will have to be litigated quickly for obvious reasons. I will say, even with all of his often-craven flip flops, Abbott has generally used his executive powers under the Disaster Act to mitigate or halt the spread of the coronavirus. Extending early voting to a third week was one such example of that. There’s nothing in this order that conforms to that goal – limiting mail ballot dropoff locations will force more people to one location and may wind up making more people vote in person – and so on that principle it would seem to me that Abbott’s underlying rationale is legally suspect. I don’t know that that’s an issue here – that would seem to be more of a claim for state court. Who knows, maybe there will be another lawsuit that does go that route. In the meantime, this is what we have. Reform Austin has more.

Here comes the police reform task force report

Now let’s do something with it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday rolled out his task force’s report on policing reform in Houston, but said he needed more time to digest the 153-page report before taking action on its recommendations.

The task force lists 104 reforms the city could enact to improve policing in Houston, which the Chronicle previously reported.

Among them: a fundamentally revamped oversight board with full-time investigative staff, a blanket ban on no-knock warrants for nonviolent offenses, the public release of body camera footage within 30 days of critical incidents, more stringent rules on police officer misconduct and an online process for complaints about police behavior.

Turner said his initial read indicated the report was comprehensive. He embraced revamping the oversight board — a conclusion he said he reached before the report was released — but declined to say when recommendations would be adopted.

“If you can just give me a few days to really digest it, and then to visit with Chairman (Laurence) Payne and the sub-chairs, and some of the members of city council, I’d be in a much better position,” Turner said when asked about implementation. “Literally, I just got it yesterday.”

The report is here, and I have not yet read it. But I strongly agree with the Chron editorial board that there needs to be real action here. We know the history of task forces, and of police reform more generally. The need for action is clear, and it’s urgent. Let’s not blow it. Grits, who has read the report, and the Press have more.

It’s Julie Oliver week

Julie Oliver, the Democratic candidate in CD25, is getting a fair bit of attention this week. First, there’s this Statesman story about what her path to victory looks like.

Julie Oliver

On a recent Zoom fundraiser with Beto O’Rourke, Democratic congressional candidate Julie Oliver was asked what the campaign was doing in the vast rural stretches of a district that extends 220 miles from Hays to Tarrant counties.

“We’re doing everything we did before the pandemic except knocking on doors and having rallies, so we’re connecting with people throughout the district,” said Oliver, an Austin lawyer and former health care executive. “Y’all that live in Austin might not be able to see what is happening in rural Texas. But that’s what’s exciting. The Democrats that have been scared to be Democrats for years and years and don’t tell their neighbors are now loud and proud. And even more than that, Republicans who have lost their party are loud and proud.”

Two years ago, Oliver came within 9 points of defeating U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin.

Williams won reelection in 2016 by nearly 21 points. In 2018, Oliver won 20,000 more votes than Kathi Thomas, the 2016 Democratic nominee, while Williams drew 18,000 fewer votes than he had two years previous.

Most of Oliver’s gains came from winning 15,500 more votes in Travis County, even as Williams’ total declined by 6,500 votes.

But, beyond Travis County, there are all or part of 12 other counties in the 25th Congressional District, and, of those, Oliver only prevailed in the small slice of Bell County by Fort Hood, and only has any chance of adding to the win column this November the western portion of Hays County that lies in the district.

The other counties are mostly rural and extraordinarily hard country for Democrats.

“I do not envision Julie Oliver being in the 20s in Hamilton County,” said Lucas Robinson, the Republican chair in the county, which provided Oliver only 509 votes in 2018, the fewest of any the districts’ counties.

That’s 15.5%, a 2% improvement from 2016.

“We are very, very, very Republican county,” said Robinson, an attorney and businessman. “And I don’t get any sense that that’s changing. In fact, it’s probably improving for Roger, this time around, simply because it’s the presidential year and people are quite fired up in my estimate for Trump.”

[…]

The 25th is the most starkly polarized of the six districts that each carve a piece out of Austin, complicating Oliver’s task as she seeks to overtake Williams.

With growth in the district factored in, Oliver probably has to claim nearly half as many more votes than she received in 2018 to win.

“I think she’s a good candidate, and by running twice, she’s in a more advantageous position than someone who no one in the district has ever cast a ballot for,” said Josh Blank, research director the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, who lives in the 25th.

But he said, “Ultimately, Roger Williams’ task is much easier than Julie Oliver’s, because his success relies on mobilizing reliable voters, as much as he possibly can, while dinging her slightly along the way with voters who might be on the fence, of who they were going to be very few.”

Democrats, on the other hand, are “trying to become competitive by mobilizing groups of voters who are defined by their low propensity in most cases to vote. If you are a voter of low socio-economic status, working multiple jobs, and in need of health care, the Democrats definitely would be very attractive to you, but voting is not your No. 1 priority.”

Oliver cannot overlook any opportunity.

“We’re at a place in America where every election is a base election, every election is about mobilizing your core partisans, if not for you, at the very least, against the other guy,” Blank said. “And as we get closer or more competitive in any place, and Texas is an example of that, ultimately, it does come down to margins.”

That means trying to reduce the magnitude of Williams’ advantage even in places like Hamilton County, while assiduously courting and increasing the ranks of the more than 72,000 new voters in the 25th since the last election, and synchronizing efforts with overlapping state legislative campaigns that are more invigorated than in the past.

My interview with Julie Oliver is here in case you missed it. I generally agree with Josh Blank, in that CD25 has a much greater rural aspect than the other Democratic pickup opportunities. That said, the rural part of CD25 isn’t growing by nearly as much as the more Dem-friendly parts of the district:


County        2016      2018     2020
=====================================
Bosque       12,002   12,209   12,264
Burnet       29,587   31,072   32,208
Coryell      37,644   38,635   39,539
Erath        21,537   22,492   23,063
Hamilton      5,467    5,611    5,714
Hill         22,825   22,743   22,924
Johnson      91,725   97,157  102,458
Lampasas     13,786   14,099   14,728
Somervell     6,018    6,287    6,482

Bell        186,533  195,760  204,863
Hays        121,326  134,403  144,314
Travis      725,035  775,950  829,305

I skipped Tarrant County, as there’s just a tiny piece of it in CD25. Bell, Hays, and Travis are only partly in CD25, and I can’t say how much of their growth is in this district. I feel confident saying that Hamilton County, which had 66% turnout in 2016 and 61% in 2018, will not be the major contributor to a Roger Williams victory, if that is what is in the cards. It’s Johnson County (net 28K to Williams in 2018, followed by Burnet (+10K to Williams), Coryell and Hill (+6K each) that are Oliver’s biggest obstacles. If she can hold those margins down while building on the +42K net she got in Travis and the +3K in Bell (Hays was minus 3K for her, but that was an improvement on 2016; I’d say the goal is to break even here), she can win. A challenge to be sure, but it’s doable.

Meanwhile, the Texas Signal has a nice long profile on Oliver.

In the inevitable-looking saga of Republicans losing power in Texas, there would be no sweeter stroke of fate than Julie Oliver toppling Congressman Roger Williams.

A healthcare finance analyst turned Democratic candidate, Oliver is running one of the most progressive campaigns in Texas that include support for the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, abolishing private and for-profit prisons, and going after dark money in politics.

To prove the latter, Oliver is saying no to all political action committee money. Not just corporate PAC money, but PAC money from the major unions and agreeable political action groups that have endorsed her, such as the Texas AFL–CIO, Our Revolution, Working Families, Moms Demand Action and Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

Oliver’s commitment to the no PAC money pledge goes as far as sending back checks, sometimes worth only $100 or $200, to small Democratic clubs that support her.

“You don’t have to have millions of dollars in cash to win,” Oliver told the Signal, citing the elections Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush — three progressives that defeated more moderate, well-funded incumbent Democrats in safely blue districts during their primaries due to grassroots fundraising and organizing.

Oliver held the same pledge in 2018 during her first bid for Congress against Williams. She raised an impressive $644,928, but fell 9 percentage points short on Election Day — not exactly a nailbiter, but a significant improvement from her predecessor in 2016 who lost by 20 points.

“I’ve heard from some people in the Democratic Party who are like, ‘oh that’s foolish, you’ll have to take PAC money this time,’” Oliver said. “And I’m like, mm-hmm, we’ll see about that.”

Primaries are not the same as general elections, but Oliver has done very well with this approach. She’d already outraised herself from the 2018 cycle as of Q2 and appears to be on her way to topping $1 million in total receipts. That’s pretty damn impressive, especially since the large majority of her donations have come from Texas. The main thing this money, and the level of engagement that has allowed her to get contributions from so many small donors, will allow her to do is to reach out to the new voters and the likely Democrats who were there but didn’t vote in 2018. That’s the kind of thing that a campaign that has resources can do.

And she may have some more resources coming her way.

Julie Oliver, the Democrat challenging U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, is being named to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue program.

“Texans know tough, and Julie Oliver has always beat the odds,” DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos says in a statement. “A homeless, pregnant teenager who dropped out of high school, Julie endured to finish high school, put herself through college and law school with a young family and build a successful career.

The Red to Blue designation comes roughly a month after the DCCC expanded its Texas target list to include Williams’ 25th Congressional District and two others. The committee has now designated 10 total seats in Texas that it’s working to flip this November, and Oliver is the seventh contender in those races who’s received the Red to Blue distinction.

See here for the background. The DCCC is of course a PAC, but it does its own spending, not in conjunction with campaigns. More likely, what this means is that they will tell their donors who are looking to put their extra dollars to good use that Julie Oliver and CD25 is worth the investment. At this point in the cycle that’s going to have a fairly limited effect, but it’s a whole lot better than nothing, and a whole lot more than what anyone might have thought possible in 2018.

And just as I was finishing this draft, Texas Monthly began a series it’s calling Get To Know A Swing District, with CD25 and the Oliver/Williams rematch as its first entry. All in all, a pretty good week for Julie Oliver.

Endorsement watch: Menefee and more

The Chron endorses Christian Menefee for Harris County Attorney.

Christian Menefee

Christian Menefee was still celebrating his victory in the Democratic primary over longtime incumbent Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan when the coronavirus pandemic changed everything. Lockdowns and social distancing left the 32-year-old civil litigation attorney with a lot of time on his hands.

He used those spare hours well. During the last several months, Menefee told the editorial board, he has researched the inner workings of the department he hopes to run. He studied the office’s organizational charts. He talked to more than 30 current employees. He reached out to the Dallas County district attorney and the Travis County attorney.

That helped give him a solid understanding of the office he seeks and what improvements need to be made, Menefee said.

“You can’t just come in with ideas,” said Menefee, a Houston native who is a litigator with Kirkland & Ellis. “You need to come in with stuff that you know is going to work.”

That kind of energy, attention to detail and determination to make the county attorney office as effective as possible earn Menefee our endorsement. We also recommended him in the primary, noting his commitment to expanding the office’s environmental law section, which currently has four full-time lawyers.

In addition to the bread-and-butter work of representing elected officials, local entities and county employees, Menefee said he wants the office to bring more impact litigation to “hold polluters accountable.”

Menefee also wants the office to be a strong advocate for local control — no small feat, given the control officials in Austin have sought in recent years, including Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s recent challenges to the county on vote-by-mail applications and eviction policies.

If you listen to the interview I did with Menefee for the primary, you will definitely hear all of these themes from him. He’s got a lot of potential, and I expect big things.

Next, the Chron heads a bit north to endorse Hank Gilbert in CD01 over the hottest of messes that is Louie Gohmert.

Hank Gilbert

Ever since voters in Texas’ 1st Congressional District sent U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert to Congress in 2004 by a landslide, it’s been an open question as to how extreme, how divisive and how — there’s no other way to put it — how batty their congressman can get before he’s recalled.

If his electoral successes are any guide, Gohmert is in no danger of being held accountable for his antics, which include most recently refusing to wear a mask unless he got COVID-19 — which he promptly did. His positive diagnosis drew a worried rebuke from his own daughter on Twitter: “My father ignored medical expertise and now he has Covid,” she wrote.

Still, as congressman, Gohmert has never polled less than 68 percent. Time and again, despite a mountain of cringe-worthy examples, Gohmert has emerged stronger after Election Day.

This year, his opponent swears it will be different. “He’s never had a real challenger,” says Democrat Hank Gilbert, 60, a former rancher, high school ag teacher and two-time candidate for Texas agriculture commissioner.

We hope he’s right. The district deserves better than what it’s had these past 16 years. Heck, Congress deserves better.

Here’s my interview with Hank, who is a mensch through and through. No question, Congress and the country would be a much better place with Hank subbing in for Gohmert, but that’s on the voters, and this is a tough district. If you know someone who lives in that district, make sure they know about Hank.

Finally, the Chron endorses incumbent Rep. Mike McCaul for re-election, and while the have good things to say about Mike Siegel, they argue that “trading an accomplished and pragmatic congressman would not serve the district well”. Whatevs.