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November 3rd, 2020:

The role Harris County can play in turning Texas blue

Big county + big turnout = big margin.

Texas is not the sort of place national candidates visit just before Election Day or where political ads play on a loop during popular TV shows.

And, yet, here we are: Texas has been declared “in play,” with some polls rating the long solidly red state as a tossup between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

A key reason is decades of rapid growth, as a strong economy drew millions of residents from across the country to Texas, most of them to urban areas — and more residents means more voters.

Harris County alone has grown its voter roll by about 292,000 since the 2016 election, equivalent to absorbing all of registered voters in Galveston County and tacking on another 70,000.

To earn a shot at Texas’ 38 electoral votes, Biden would need to combine a blowout here with sweeps in the state’s other large metros to offset Trump’s expected dominance in rural areas. If that occurs, the Houston area’s newly minted voters likely will play a key role.

A Houston Chronicle analysis of precinct-level voting patterns shows the Houston area’s growth has moved in tandem with Democrats’ widening advantage here in recent elections.

You can read the rest, and I’ll get to some numbers in a minute. But first, the big question is who else is out there to vote?

With 9.7 million ballots already cast across Texas — more than 1 of 7 of them in Harris County — will anyone show up Tuesday?

Well, yes, political scientists and consultants agree, though their estimates of the expected turnout vary.

County voters have already matched the 58 percent total turnout of the 2004 election and are just short of the 61 to 63 percent turnout recorded in the last three presidential contests. Statewide, 57 percent of registered voters have cast ballots.

The Harris County Clerk’s Office expects 200,000 to 300,000 voters to turn out Tuesday. Two Democratic consultants expect about 350,000 — in line with the last two general elections. Two local political scientists think 400,000 is possible, though they differed on whether the higher tally would benefit Democrats or Republicans.

The lower estimate would produce a final tally of about 1.6 million votes, or 66 percent turnout. The higher figure would push turnout close to 75 percent, which would be a modern record, exceeding the 72 percent turnout posted in 1992, when Houstonian George H.W. Bush lost a tough reelection fight to Bill Clinton.

GOP political consultant Kevin Shuvalov expects a more modest mark, saying, “It’s going to be bigger, but we’re not going to have 2 million voters.”

Still, he added, “Looking at who’s left over, there’s a lot of reliable voters still out there who have participated in multiple general elections previously. And then you have a large chunk of voters they just really like to vote on Election Day. They’re traditionalists.”

Democratic consultant Robert Jara echoed that, noting that many older voters are in the habit of casting their ballots at the same nearby Election Day polling place.

“There’s a sense of community, really, of voting in your neighborhood,” Jara said.

Local Latino voters have also disproportionately voted on Election Day in the past, Jara said, noting that Democrats tend to get an Election Day boost from predominantly Latino eastside precincts.

We’ve talked about some of this before, including the propensity of Latino voters to vote later in the cycle. I’m on record saying that I expect 300K or more votes tomorrow – I think we end up over 1.7 million, but maybe not quite at 1.8 million. I’ll be more surprised if we fail to reach 1.7 million than if we exceed 1.8 million.

The thing about these big numbers is that they can, and very likely will, lead to big margins for Joe Biden, bigger perhaps than we might have expected. Remember, when I did my super-simple projection of the vote, one of the assumptions baked in was that turnout levels would be static. If counties like Harris, which will provide a big chunk of the Democratic vote, overperform their expectations, that changes the math. (The same is true for the heavily red counties, but the vast majority of those are small. There’s no equivalent of Harris, or Dallas, or Travis, on the Republican side.)

Here’s what that means in practice. As a reminder, Hillary Clinton carried Harris County by 162K votes in 2016, winning 53.95% of the vote to Trump’s 41.61%. Beto carried Harris County by 201K votes, getting 57.98% to Ted Cruz’s 41.31%. Let’s assume we hit the low end of turnout projections, with 1.7 million total votes. How would that affect Biden’s margins?

53.95% – 41.61% = 210K net votes for Biden
57.98% – 41.31% = 283K net votes for Biden

I think its safe to assume Biden will do better than Clinton’s 53.95% – among other things, the third party vote will be much smaller. Note how both Trump and Cruz were mired in the 41% range – other Republicans did do better, but these two uniquely disliked flag-bearers did particularly poorly. It’s not out of the question that Trump could fail to break 40% in Harris. If we assume a more maximalist final turnout of 1.8 million, and a 60-40 win for Biden, he’ll net 360K votes in Harris County. That’s a lot.

(For what it’s worth, months ago when I was discussing blue-sky scenarios with fellow Dems, I posited a 60-40 win with turnout of 1.5 million, which I thought was reasonably ambitious and assumed a voter registration goal of 2.4 million. Who knew I was actually being restrained?)

Now again, what happens in Harris is a piece of the puzzle, but it’s not determinative in and of itself. The number of counties that Trump will carry will far exceed the number of counties that Biden will carry, and while most of those counties will have a small number of voters, there are big ones out there like Montgomery. Republicans can make up the big numbers Dems will post in their few strongholds by posting a lot of 70-30 and 80-20 wins in small and medium-sized counties. Dems will need to at least hold those losses to what they were in 2016 and 2018 to have a manageable deficit to overcome. Longer term, by which I mean 2022 and 2024, Dems will need to figure out how to gain ground in places like Waco and Lubbock and Tyler and New Braunfels and Abilene and Amarillo.

That’s a discussion for another day. Here’s the final Derek Ryan email.

9,677,963 people voted in Texas! That’s 57.1% of all registered voters. To give you some perspective on how crazy that number is, turnout for the ENTIRE 2016 General Election was 59.4%. In 2012, it was 58.6%.

So where does that put us at the brief electoral intermission?

There are still 7.2 million registered voters who have NOT voted. Of those, 3.1 million have voted in a previous election in the last four election cycles (dating back to 2012). If 75% of these people vote on Election Day, that will get us to the 12 million figure I keep throwing out there.

Voters who most recently voted in a Republican Primary have a 432,000 vote advantage over those who most recently voted in a Democratic Primary. Again, it must be pointed out that 4.6 million people who voted early who have no previous primary history.

What has been the participation rate based on voters’ previous election history?

  • 81% of voters with previous Republican Primary history voted early
  • 82% of voters with previous Democratic Primary history voted early
  • 59% of voters with previous General Election history (and no primary history) voted early
  • 29% of voters with no previous General or Primary Election history voted early

[…]

So what should we expect on Election Night? Based on the data, here is what I expect to see. Typically, the first results that are released at 7:01pm are numbers from early voting. In many portions of the state, these results will likely favor Democratic candidates. Then, as results from Election Day trickle in, we will see data that likely favors Republican candidates. In previous election cycles, the opposite has been the case. If you are only following the statewide election results, this will certainly be the case. It is important to note that voting early is a bigger trend in urban and suburban counties more so than in rural counties. For example, the average turnout percentage in the top 20 counties was 58.1%, but in the remaining 234 counties, the average turnout percentage was 48.7%.

Why does that matter? In 2016, Hillary Clinton received 50.8% to Donald Trump’s 44.8% in the top 20 largest counties, but Donald Trump received 70.9% to Hillary Clinton’s 25.9% in the remaining 234 counties.

The report is here. Anyone out there who was waiting till today to vote?

UPDATE: I don’t have any better place to put this, and I only saw it on Monday even though it was published on Friday, but here’s a Chron interview with Chris Hollins that’s worth your time.

Federal judge denies Hotze petition

Hopefully, this will be the end of this particular nonsense.

A federal judge Monday rejected a request by a conservative activist and three Republican candidates to toss out nearly 127,000 votes cast at drive-thru polling sites in Texas’ most populous, and largely Democratic, county.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, a George W. Bush appointee, follows two earlier decisions by the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court rejecting similar efforts by Republicans challenging the validity of drive-thru voting in Harris County. Although Hanen’s ruling is still expected to be appealed quickly, it appears to clear the way for counting the early voting drive-thru ballots on Election Day.

In his ruling from the bench, Hanen said he rejected the case on narrow grounds because the plaintiffs did not show they would be harmed if the drive-thru ballots are counted. He noted, however, that the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals could think differently if the cases reaches them.

If he had ruled on the larger issues in the case, Hanen said he would have rejected the request to toss out votes already cast. But Hanen said he would have shut down Harris County’s drive-thru polling places for Election Day, because the tents being used for the sites don’t qualify as “buildings” under state election law.

“If I were voting tomorrow … I would not vote in a drive-thru just out of my concern as to whether that’s illegal or not,” he said. “I am going to order the county to maintain all the drive-thru voting records … just in case the 5th Circuit disagrees.”

Ten percent of Harris County’s in-person early voters cast their ballots at the county’s 10 drive-thru locations. Dismissing the votes would have been a monumental disenfranchisement of voters in a presidential election besieged with fights over voter suppression and fraud.

The judge ruled from the bench after a hearing with plaintiffs, the county and numerous Texas and national voting rights and political groups joining Harris County to argue that the drive-thru program was legal under Texas election law.

See here, here, and here for the background. This is obviously a great relief, because as ridiculous as this lawsuit was, the cost of an adverse ruling was sky-high. There will be an appeal, but it looks like that will be to stop drive-through voting on Election Day, not to continue the pursuit of throwing these votes out. I think.

On that note: You saw Judge Hanen’s words about voting at a drive-through location today. Drive-through locations will be open today, and if you have the need to use one, then use it. I believe there’s form you can use to attest to your need to vote curbside, which is legally different than drive-through and which is expressly allowed under Texas law (the whole dispute here ultimately boils down to the allegation that drive-through voting is an illegal expansion of curbside voting). Otherwise, I agree with the lawyers who say just park and go inside to vote. Don’t take the chance that this could come up again after the election.

Statements from the ACLU and the Texas Civil Rights Project are beneath the fold, and a statement from the Texas Democratic Party is here. This Twitter thread by Raffi Melkonian is a terrific blow-by-blow account of the hearing and ruling, with some explanations thrown in for the non-lawyers. The Chron, Houston Public Media, the Press, Mother Jones, Politico, and Daily Kos have more.

UPDATE: And so the appeal is happening in the night. Here’s another Twitter thread to keep track. I hope like hell I don’t have to rewrite this whole damn post in the morning.

UPDATE: As of 9 PM, no actual filing yet.

UPDATE: OK, the petition has been filed. They are just asking for drive-through voting to be halted for Election Day. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Hopefully, this is the final final update:

You can see the denial in its glory here. The remaining drive-through location will be at the Toyota Center, which no one can deny is a building; the reason that Judge Hanen would have halted drive-through voting on Election Day is because the law is actually different for Election Day than it is for early voting, specifying “buildings” instead of “structures”. At this point, there really isn’t anything left to litigate. Happy voting to whoever will be doing so today.

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A focus on the SCOTX races

With so much litigation over a variety of voting issues, the Supreme Court of Texas is in the news a lot these days. Will that mean more attention being paid to the four races for SCOTX positions?

Justice Gisela Triana

The sleepy contests for seats on Texas’ highest courts have taken on new energy this year as Democrats, bullish on their chances to claim seats on the all-Republican courts, seek to capitalize on a series of controversial pandemic- and election-related decisions.

Voters have the chance to choose four justices on the nine-member Texas Supreme Court, the state’s highest court for civil matters, and three judges on its sister body, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

It’s notoriously difficult for judicial candidates, even those running for the state’s high courts, to capture voters’ attention, particularly with a hotly contested presidential race above them on the ballot. But this year, Democrats say they have something new to run against: decisions by the high court to end Texas’ eviction moratorium and election opinions that limited mail-in voting options.

“The Supreme Court has been in the news on almost a weekly basis over the last several months … with all the election shenanigans that are going on,” said Justice Gisela Triana, who serves on the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals and is running as a Democrat for a seat on the high court. “I think they’ve been complicit in allowing the Republican Party to try to make it harder for people to vote.”

For Republicans, meanwhile, the virus is an argument for sticking with the status quo. Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, who faces reelection this fall, said unprecedented challenges of access to justice and budget concerns during the pandemic would best be handled by a judge with experience running the court.

“We’re in such untraveled waters — dangerous, difficult, challenging times,” said Hecht, who has served on the court for more than three decades. “It takes some leadership not only to try to discern a wise course through all this, but to get the other branches to go along with you.”

[…]

Even as President Donald Trump runs an unusually tight race in Texas with Democratic nominee Joe Biden, less controversial Republicans lower on the ballot are expected to perform better in Texas. Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, facing Democrat MJ Hegar, has shown a wider lead in polling than the president, and statewide judicial candidates outperformed U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 and Trump in 2016.

Republicans say they’re confident Trump will carry the state — but that the judges could win even if he doesn’t.

Pollsters sometimes view statewide judicial races as pure tests of a voter’s partisan allegiance since so few Texans are familiar with the candidates.

“Even though we’re toward the top of the ticket, people don’t know much about who we are,” Hecht said.

[…]

Along with new attention to the high court comes the uncertainty about what the end of straight-ticket voting will mean for Texas. This Nov. 3 marks the first election in which Texans won’t have the option of voting for every candidate in a certain party with just one punch — a colossal change whose effects neither party can fully anticipate.

All that, coupled with a volatile presidential race, means “you just can’t tell” where the outcome may land, Hecht said.

“It’s just completely unpredictable,” Boyd said. A higher profile for the court could help him as an incumbent, he said.

“If people are seeing the coverage and thinking, ‘I need to do my homework on these races,’ I have full confidence that when they do their homework they’ll end up supporting me,” Boyd said.

Democrats see reason for optimism in early voting totals, which have shattered records, especially in large, blue counties like Harris. But Republicans are also turning out to vote early in high numbers.

And there may be more reason for Democrats to be hopeful. Keir Murray, a Democratic operative in Houston, said based on the statewide numbers he’s seeing, women are outvoting men by 10 points — a potentially major boon for an all-female Democratic slate for Supreme Court.

“Women usually outvote men, but not to that degree,” he said.

Let’s start with the obvious – the statewide judicial races are mostly affected by the Presidential race. It’s true that the Supreme Court has been in the news a lot recently and have made a number of consequential rulings that affect not just the election and how it is being conducted but also the COVID pandemic and how it is being handled. The story does a good job laying all this out, and I’d be willing to believe that a lot of people are at least aware of these things. How many of those people are more likely to vote, or are likely to change how they vote, as a result of these stories is a question none of us can answer, but my suspicion is that it’s pretty small. Makes for good speculation and the basis of stories like these, but that’s as far as we can go.

What about the claim that Republicans are likely to win the statewide judicial races even if Biden carries Texas? It’s kind of amazing that Republicans would advance that hypothesis instead of just laugh off the question, but a check of recent elections suggests they’re onto something. All of the Republicans running for statewide judicial office in 2016 won by a wider margin than Trump did, and all of the Republicans running for statewide judicial office in 2018 won by a wider margin than Ted Cruz did. If there are Republican voters who don’t vote for Trump like that, then that’s a plausible scenario. I feel like a lot of the people who avoided Trump but otherwise mostly voted R in 2016 were voting mostly D in 2018, but maybe I’m wrong about that. Keir Murray’s point about the electorate being disproportionately female so far means Dems are probably doing pretty well so far and that’s a boost for all Dem candidates, but it doesn’t tell us anything about how the court candidates may do compared to Trump. I don’t think the Cornyn/Hegar polling tells us all that much either, as there’s a name recognition component to that.

An alternate possibility is that some number of people who vote for Trump will peace out after that. Trump has spent plenty of time attacking Republicans, too, so some of his supporters are loyal to him but not the party. The 2016 experience suggests that’s unlikely, but maybe this year is different. I don’t think the lack of straight ticket voting will matter much. The Supreme Court Chief Justice election is the fifth race people will see on their ballots, following the three federal elections (President, US Senate, US House) and Railroad Commissioner. Maybe some people who aren’t strong partisans will skip those races because they don’t feel they know the candidates well enough, but it won’t be because they’re tired of all that voting.

Look, Democrats are motivated to vote, and they’re pissed at the rulings in some of these lawsuits, even if SCOTX maintained its integrity in the latest Hotze provocation. I think there’s a strong urge to vote all the way down. I just don’t know how to quantify that. I’ll know more after the election.

Today is Election Day

It almost feels unreal, doesn’t it? Like some people have been saying while on line at voting locations, we’ve been waiting four whole years for this. Now it’s here, Texas is considered a swing state, the Lege is in play, multiple Congressional districts are up for grabs, turnout is off the charts. And also we’ve got feral lunatics out on the highways and filing frivolous lawsuits, and of course a malevolent and unpredictable President who’s a coward and a bully but also has a whole lot of minions willing to do dirty work for him. So yeah, these are anxious times.

Your task is to vote, if you haven’t already. And when I say “vote”, I mean vote for Joe Biden and MJ Hegar and Democrats up and down the ballot, because there’s only one way we’re going to get those Trump minions out of power and that’s to vote them out. There are over 800 locations available in Harris County today, with voting from 7 AM to 7 PM. Find a convenient and not-too-crowded location and do the thing. As long as you’re on line by 7 PM you get to vote, but really, don’t wait that long. Make a plan to get there as early as you can.

I will of course be up till all hours this evening following the returns, and will post stuff as I can. The few days after an election are chaotic for me under the most benign and normal of circumstances, so things may be a little weird for the rest of the week. We’ll get through this together. I’m on Twitter and will probably have some things to say while we’re parsing the numbers tonight.

I’m assuming there will be a press release from the County Clerk about today’s voting, and I will add it to this post when I get it. It was a busy day for them yesterday, obviously. I want to thank and congratulate the entire staff of the Clerk’s office, from Chris Hollins on down, for doing such a fantastic job running this election. I truly hope the innovations they implemented and the commitment they showed to making it easier for people to vote become the new normal statewide. Let’s also not forget Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia for putting up the money for this. Voting could have always been this convenient. Now that we know that, let’s never go back to how it was before.

I’m not in the predictions business, but feel free to say what you think will happen today in the comments. I’ll have the data when it’s available.

UPDATE: Who needs a press release when you have a Twitter thread?

Texas blog roundup for the week of November 2

The Texas Progressive Alliance urges you to vote if you haven’t already as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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